Ballad of a well-known axe
Model: Ovation S771 Balladeer Special six-string electro-acoustic guitar
Price: RM3,625 (including hard-shell case)
Distributed by C.K. MUSIC SDN BHD (Tel: 03-2145-0178 / 2142-0529) 125 Jalan Imbi, 55100 Kuala Lumpur / E-Mail: email@example.com
ALTHOUGH ordinarily, the competition as far as electro-acoustics go is pretty stiff, in the world of bowlbacked guitars Ovation reigns supreme. From the 1960s to the present day, Kaman Music Corporation has sought to put its products in a league of their own by devoting the utmost care and attention to the crafting of these fine instruments. Unfortunately, not everyone is a fan.
Personally, my preference has always been for standard dreadnoughts. Not that I havent been bowled over (no pun intended) by the curvy looks of certain roundbacks, mind you. After all, the very first bowlback that I managed to wrap my grubby paws around was a friends Elite and that axe was a real looker. Alas, Ive normally found the tone these instruments emit (that particular Elite included) to be too waif-like for my taste. Also, there was the small factor of price.
For the longest time, only Asian manufactured copies built on the same template as the Ovations were within the reach of average Malaysians. Everything else, including the entry-level Applause models was ridiculously inflated.
So, were there then some reservations when I was commissioned to review the S771 Balladeer Special? Yup! Was it justified? Well, given all the things stated above, probably! However, after having had the pleasure of this babys company over the course of some weeks, Im happy to report that this guitar proved to be much, much better than I initially thought it would be. In fact, it was such a dream to play, that I almost didnt want to part with it. But more about that later.Thrills and fills
The engineers at Kaman havent exactly broken new ground with the Balladeer Special. Essentially, what theyve done is modify an existing design by adding more frills. But since Ovations original Balladeer (that made its first stage appearance in 1966) already pioneered radical, innovative ideas in craftsmanship and design, all that the company needed to do this time around was bring the guitar into the 21st century. Of the latest improvements, the new OP-30 preamp is surely the most impressive. However, theres more to the S771 Balladeer Special than just a high-tech electronic section.
Like most products bearing the Ovation brand name, the Special is a work of art. From the trademark headstock to the smooth walnut bridge, everything seems to have been put together with immense precision. The sound-hole too was free of any ostensible coarseness. Actually, I tried really hard to find a spot on this axe that had been overlooked in the manufacturing process. But even after so many sessions with the instrument, Ive yet to detect any evidence of poor attention to detail.
Ovations unique A-bracing (that features lateral struts instead of the traditional X-bracing) is also utilised on the Special. Its lightweight and apparently enhances not only the sound quality but also the look of the sitka spruce top. And speaking of the solid top, the guys at Ovation have applied a hand-rubbed satin urethane finish to give the guitar a very appealing, au naturel appearance.
Strings run from the walnut bridge over a compensated saddle to sturdy, chrome diecast Ping machine heads. The tuning pegs seemed a little stiff at first, but this quirk, though annoying, helps to keep strings in tune. Overall, the playability of the Special is splendid with the soft V neck profile (the result of two pieces of select mahogany being set together with their grain directions opposed) allowing for easier gliding up and down the 25¼-scaled rosewood fretboard.
Holding down chords may require some getting used to due to the neck profile, but lead runs thanks in part to the highly buffed fingerboard, satin urethane polished neck and single cutaway are easier to execute. Ovation has always prided itself in providing acoustics for the electric player and that fact is extremely apparent on the Special.
Like all Balladeers, the Special features Ovations thinline pickup underneath the walnut saddle, which is controlled by the very cool looking OP-30 preamp. Like the OP-24Plus C that this model is based on, the preamp brandishes controls for volume, a three-band EQ and cool-but-flimsy push buttons that allow one to reduce mids and control as well as bypass EQ. The OP-30 also comes with an on-board chromatic tuner to make playing in tune on stage that much easier.
So, the S771 Special is an extremely well put together axe. But would it deliver the goods sonically? Or more importantly, would it further cement my beliefs that roundbacks are only capable of producing emaciated tone? Well, was I in for a surprise.
Acoustically, the Special resonated with a voice that was, for lack of a better phrase, totally unrelated to regular bowlbacks. For a start, the guitar projected really well and almost matched my Art & Lutherie in terms of intensity. Naturally, gently picked chords and jazz-styled voicings (What, no Django? Ed.) tended to suit the Special better. However, it didnt back down when attacked aggressively. Still, full-strummed chords did lack distinct character and thats probably due to the nature of the instrument.
Roundbacks generally tend to suffer from a lack of depth and warmth. And the S771, with its shallow bowl, was no exception. The highs were trebly enough and the bass tones did manage to project an acceptable baritone. But sadly, the mid-ranges performance was less than satisfactory. Plugging in, however, revealed another side to the instrument as mids suddenly sprang to life out of thin air.
I played this guitar through two different rigs (first via a BBE 386 Acoustic Preamp and then through Yamahas AG Stomp) in order to ascertain what this guitar was truly capable off. And both times, the results were extremely pleasing. Minimal tweaking was necessary as the S771 soared to heights that Id never thought possible. The only problem was the feedback gremlins that kept surfacing every time the shelving filter (Pre-Shape) button on the built-in preamp was pushed.
Basically, what the Pre-Shape function seeks to do is cut out piezo harshness, and though to an extent that was achieved, the sound niggles did cause a little woe. The Mid-Shift function on the other hand, allows for switching between low (400Hz) and high (1KHz) frequencies. Its down to individual taste really, but I tended to prefer boosting the mids.
The OP-30s on-board chromatic tuner too proved a neat thing to have, as I was able to switch from regular to alternate string tunings in a matter of seconds and thereby indulge my Nick Drake-fascination.
One minor gripe regarding the preamp functions though is the absence of LEDs to indicate when something has been activated or otherwise. The presence of the LEDs relating to the chromatic tuner hints that the engineers could have added a few more lights at no added cost to make life easier for the stage musician. So, why they chose to overlook this is anyones guess.Bowled over
All in all, the S771 Balladeer Special comes across as a pretty straightforward electro-acoustic. The frills and embellishments that have been added to this latest update do modernise the overall instrument but the essence and selling points of the traditional Balladeers have been largely unaltered. Having said that though, if youre one of those determined to remain resolutely opposed to roundbacks till his dying day and/or consider Charlie Kaman the antichrist, youll probably be unimpressed.
The truth though is that the S771 Special, as far as electros go, is a real winner. So if youre in need of a reliable piece of plank that delivers the goods regardless of whether its amplified or not, this baby should serve you nicely. True, at little over RM3,000, the guitar may be a tad on the pricey side for some. But just remember how much a good Ovation used to cost before.
Pros: Excellent projection; outstanding treble and bass tone; ease of play; on-board tuner; extremely well put together.
Cons: Bland midrange when not plugged in; flimsy push buttons; some feedback and piezo splatter apparent at high volumes.