Just as the guitar market is teaming with options in the five-figure range, there have never been more interesting options for $500 and under. An excellent example of the latter is Michael Kelly’s 3D Grand Auditorium, which incorporates modern features that have trickled down from boutique instruments. It hardly strikes one as a budget offering—the guitar has a warm, projective voice that stacks up favorably against costly contenders.
The 3D in the guitar’s name refers to three distinguishing features, incorporated for sonic reasons. First, the top is torrefied, or treated through a controlled heating process such that its interior structure mimics the characteristics of decades-old wood and its coloring has taken on an amber hue. In other words, it resembles a vintage soundboard. Second, the back is arched, for a loud and focused sound—a sound that the player can clearly hear, thanks to the third feature, a soundhole on the bass side that directs the sound upward.
This all sounds good on paper, but is it marketing hyperbole?
Well, the 3D doesn’t necessarily have the burnished tone of, say, a prewar Martin OM. But that could hardly be expected at this price, and the guitar does have a lot going for it in terms of sonic performance. Overall, it has a husky and focused sound, with a good amount of resonance and projection. It is, for the most part, well balanced, though the bass frequencies could be a tad livelier.
The 3D is equally hospitable to being fingerpicked or played with a pick. I strum through the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” and find the instrument to have a strong presence. A midrange sparkle is revealed when I fingerpick “The House of the Rising Sun,” with its open chords in the key of A minor. The 3D also fares well, sonically speaking, in open-G tuning, but the bass notes get a touch murky when I play a Steve Baughman arrangement in Orkney tuning (low to high: C G D G C D).
The guitar is outfitted with Fishman Sonitone electronics, an active system that includes a pickup and preamp with soundhole-mounted tone and volume controls. When I plug it into a Fender Acoustasonic amp, the guitar really comes alive. The tone is crisp and clear, without the quacking quality you sometimes get from an under-saddle pickup. It’s definitely a gig-ready guitar. Overall the 3D is well built. The fretwork is very clean, and so is the finish and binding work, as well as the interior aspects. On the other hand, the soundport could have been more smoothly articulated and, out of the box, the action will be higher than some players, especially beginners, prefer.
The 3D’s neck has Michael Kelly’s Comfort-C neck profile, which is relatively shallow—.85 inch at the first fret. It’s comfortable, indeed, whether I’m playing barre chords in the low positions or single-note runs at the opposite end of the fretboard. But the guitar feels a bit stiff and it’s harder to shred on the 3D than on one with optimal action.
Setup aside, the 3D Grand Auditorium is a strong player in its class—a nicely voiced guitar that successfully integrates boutique-level features, easy on the ears and the wallet.
At a Glance: Michael Kelly 3D Grand Auditorium
BODY Grand Auditorium size with Venetian cutaway; side soundhole; solid spruce top; layered Java ebony and mahogany back and sides; rosewood bridge; gloss finish
NECK Mahogany neck; 20-fret rosewood fretboard; 25.5-inch scale length; 1 1/16-inch nut; Grover Rotomatic tuners; gloss finish
EXTRAS D’Addario EXP16 Coated Phosphor Bronze strings (.012–.053); Fishman Sonitone electronics
PRICE $729 list, $500 street
Made in China
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.