Masterbilt AJ-500ME review by Epiphone

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  • Sound: 8
  • Overall Impression: 9
  • Reliability & Durability: 7
  • Action, Fit & Finish: 9
  • Features: 9
  • Reviewer's score: 8.4 Superb
  • Users' score: 7.6 (5 votes)
Epiphone: Masterbilt AJ-500ME

Price paid: $ 350

Purchased from: Guitar Center

Sound — 8
It's a little bright and maybe slightly sterile for an AJ. It's possible that I'm going a little deaf, but to my ears it lacks something of the Gibson AJ character, a kind of low-mid grunt and boom. But it sounds great, loud, balanced, swell projection, maybe leaning a bit more toward a Martin sound than a real Gibson AJ. Maybe the top will work itself into that fat honk as it ages. I flatpick and fingerpick and strum all kinds of roots-derived music, mostly open chords and some up the neck and a few single note licks and runs, though I don't do extensive single note soloing. This is a great guitar for all of that, for accompanying vocals on folk songs or for bluegrass instrumentals or whatever else you use a dreadnought for. To record, so far I have run the default 50/50 pickup mix straight into the board, mono, flat eq, and mixed that track with a close-miked track and a distant room mic for ambience. Sounds really good. The guitar sounds best in the air (miked), and although the Nanoflex "isn't a piezo," it sounds piezo-y. The Nanomag helps make up for that excessive crispness, and to be fair, I haven't begun to tweak around with the preamp to get the optimal sound, as I'm already getting satisfactory results with everything set right in the middle. For the money, the sound is a 9 going on 10. Maybe in the same price bracket, a Seagull or a Blueridge sounds a bit better in the air, and a few of the new Fenders come pretty close. Haven't heard many mid-priced acoustics that sound this good unplugged, and plugged in, it's as good as any. In absolute terms, I'll give it an 8 on sound, because who are we kidding? A 10 is some fine custom handmade guitar, and a 9 is going to be the best semi-handmade, or small production job. This is maybe a shade short of that and better than it has a right to be. Don't want to give it a 7 because people here think that's bad. They give everything straight 10s if they even like it at all.

Overall Impression — 9
Excellent match for me. Been playing roots-based folk and bluegrass and a bit of rockish stuff for 35 years, off and on. Best acoustic guitar I've owned, AND the best acoustic-electric, and I have owned quite a few. I've never owned one of those premium brands (Gibson, Martin, Taylor, Guild, etc). This aspires to be like those guitars but with a lower price, and I think Epiphone hit the mark. Better than any Alvarez, Ibanez, Fender, Gretsch, Kramer-Ferrington, Ovation, or Sigma acoustic guitar I've ever had. Some of the new Fender offerings might give it a run, or a Seagull or Blueridge, maybe a Recording King, but not much else that I can think of. I think this beats out similar offerings from Yamaha, Ibanez, Takamine, etc. There is a line of cheaper Epiphones priced below the Masterbilt line. They are good enough but not this good. If it got lost or stolen, I would sure miss it. Not sure I'd replace it with the same or closely similar model, as that would be boring, and I'd want to try something different. But this is an awesome guitar, well worth having, a pleasure to play and to hear.

Reliability & Durability — 7
Come on. It's a solid wood guitar all around, with fairly fancy electronics. You don't buy this for durability. It is very well-constructed, but if you're going to get a stage guitar to abuse, get a plywood guitar or one of those plastic Ovations or something. Then again, if you must gig with solid wood, and your idea of a decent guitar is in the $2k-$4k range, then OK, this is your beater. I would gig with it, but it's so good I am hesitant to risk it. It's more my recording than my gigging guitar. You know, the more jacks and switches and stuff that a guitar has, the more likely something will go buggy. Not the greatest idea to bring something so complex to a gig (unless it pays really great), especially if the PA and the room are going to turn your sound to crap anyway.

Action, Fit & Finish — 9
Everything was set up great from the factory. I put new strings on, 12s or 13s, I forget. I guess some people would call the action slightly high, but come on, this is an acoustic guitar. It's not supposed to have super close action. The action on this one is just right, and the neck is adjusted right. Frets are dressed nice, and the tuners stay in tune, and I've found no cosmetic flaws. Never seen a guitar set up any better from the factory. If an aftermarket pro setup with a restring included is a 10, this is a 9.

Features — 9
I think it's a 2010 model or thereabouts. Bought it new on deep discount, no case. Expect to pay more than I did. Been playing it a couple years. 25.5" scale, 20 medium frets, slimline taper D neck, solid spruce top with very straight and regular grain. Solid mahogany back and sides, mahogany neck. Satin finish, not high gloss. Open gear tuners. Bound fretboard and body, tortie pickguard, reverse belly bridge. AJ means Advanced Jumbo, a distinctive Gibson style of dreadnought with sloped shoulders. I've always wanted one for the looks and the sound. This is a very handsome guitar. The pickup system and onboard preamp are the Shadow eSonic 2. It blends an undersaddle Nanoflex pickup (similar to a piezo, but it isn't one) with a neck-position Nanomag magnetic pickup. The preamp controls and TWO stereo output jacks give you all kinds of options for blending and shaping the output. Better than most and as good as any stock pickup system I have seen on an acoustic guitar. To improve on this, you'd have to go aftermarket. Will give it a 9 on features, as it could have fancier cosmetic details but is otherwise everything you'd want for a mid-priced stage or recording guitar.

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