Reviews of Paul Reed Smith acoustic guitars invariably begin with a reminder of the company’s exalted status as a premier builder of electric guitars. Founded in 1985, PRS became known for fusing elements of iconic Fender and Gibson electric guitar designs into its own style, but the company didn’t start producing acoustic guitars until 2009. The company’s first acoustic models were exquisite instruments that seemed more like the work of a single luthier than a guitar factory. They attracted the attention of guitarists like Tony McManus, Ricky Skaggs, and Martin Simpson, who soon became endorsers, but they also included price tags similar to those of luthier-built guitars. With the addition of acoustic models to its Korean-built SE line, which literally knocks a digit from the price of PRS’s other acoustic models, PRS acoustics are now within reach of most guitarists. We received the mahogany and spruce SE Angelus Standard for review. (The SE Angelus Custom has rosewood back and sides and ebony fingerboard and bridge, and proprietary PRS electronics are optional on both versions.) If the sound and playability of our review guitar is any indication, it’s definitely time to stop referring to PRS as an electric guitar maker.
Fit and Finish
With a headstock shape and bird inlays borrowed from its SE electric guitar line and the same cutaway grand concert body shape as the high-end Angelus and Tony McManus signature model acoustics, the SE Angelus is a visual hybrid of familiar PRS styles. Its solid mahogany back has an attractive burnt sienna coloring, and while the solid Sitka spruce top’s grain was a little wider than I’m used to seeing on Sitka, it’s not uncommon for a guitar in this price range. Some manufacturers tend to scrimp on the visual details of their lower-end models, making them look more like prototypes than finished instruments, but the SE Angelus has some very attractive elements that give it the appearance of a much more expensive guitar, including the PRS signature bird inlays on the fingerboard, the white binding on the fingerboard and body, the black and white purfling, and wood rosette. Another somewhat unexpected perk at this price range is the fully compensated saddle, which provides excellent intonation all over the fingerboard. The fretwork is clean and smooth, and the finish is evenly applied though a bit thick, but this doesn’t seem to have adversely affected the sound in any way.
Feel and Sound
PRS describes the SE Angelus’s neck shape as “wide,” but this seems to refer to the depth rather than the width, since the nut width is 111/16 inches and string spacing at the saddle is 23/16 inches, not generally what fingerstylists, at least, would think of as a wide neck. The neck is a little deeper than electric guitarists, for example, might be used to, but I found the girth to be very comfortable in all positions, although guitarists with small hands might find it difficult to fret notes on the bass string with the thumb. The factory setup was good and the action was buzz-free except at the high E string’s 15th fret, which could easily be taken care of with the usual sort of setup tweak most new instruments need after an initial breaking-in period.
It can be kind of a cop-out to speak of a guitar’s versatility. It almost sounds as if you’re saying that the instrument has no particular distinguishing features. But it’s not dissembling to say that the SE Angelus’s main sonic quality is its balance and evenness of tone. After playing Irish ballads in open-G tuning, closed-chord jazz standards, bluesy monotonic-bass fingerpicking in E, open-position cross-picked old-time tunes, and single-note jazz lines that took advantage of the SE’s Venetian cutaway, the only thing I could think of to play on the SE Angelus that didn’t quite work was traditional bluegrass rhythm guitar, which tends to require a little more low-end emphasis than the SE wants to produce. I’m guessing the SE Angelus’s sonic symmetry is partially the result of PRS’s hybrid X/fan-bracing pattern, which includes a scalloped X and four fans behind the bridge, rather than traditional tone bars.
The main advantage of a guitar with this kind of tonal balance is that it allows you to play whatever music is in your head, without being brought up short when some sonic anomaly of the instrument requires you to reboot your musical imagination. Every guitarist, from pro to beginner, needs a musical partner that will follow his or her every move, and the PRS SE Angelus seems designed to do just that.
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SPECS: 15 1/2-inch cutaway body. Solid Sitka spruce top. Solid mahogany back. Mahogany sides and neck. Rosewood fingerboard and bridge. Bone nut and saddle. Hybrid scalloped-X and fan bracing. 25.25-inch scale. 1 11/16-inch nut width. 2 3/16-inch string spacing at saddle. Natural gloss finish. Chrome tuners. D’Addario light-gauge strings. Made in South Korea.
PRICE: $1,069 list/$699 street.
MAKER: Paul Reed Smith Guitars: (410) 643-9970; prsguitars.com.