Martin OM-28E Retro Acoustic Guitar Review
The Martin OM isn’t your usual 6-string success story. As Martin’s first 14-fret guitar, it’s an instrument that helped birth what’s now an industry standard. But just six years after its 1929 introduction, the OM was gone—supplanted by the subtly, but significantly, different 14-fret 000. Fast forward more than three quarters of a century though, and the OM is one of the flagship Martins—an instrument popularly regarded as the template for a great, fingerstyle acoustic. Given that status, it’s not at all surprising to see the OM as one of the pillars of Martin’s new Retro Series—a line that aims to bridge the most timeless, treasured, and unassailable merits of Martin’s classics with Fishman’s fascinating and effective Aura imaging technology.
In short, the results are impressive. The OM-28 reviewed here is an upscale Martin in every sense—luxuriously and exactingly built and, at times, a revelatory experience under the fingers. But the potential of this latest evolution and application of Fishman’s Aura technology can be equally striking. And though the union of the OM-28 and the Aura will almost certainly be enough to make some hardcore-Martin purists wince (they are nothing if not an intensely devoted sect), there’s no denying that Martin and Fishman have created a formidable stage and studio instrument that bristles with pure Martin beauty and vintage glow.
Spanning the Years
Starting back in the ’70s, it took a cult of intrepid, small-shop luthiers to resurrect the OM. The guitar never existed in numbers enough to gain a wide audience the way, say, a D-18 ultimately would. But those subtle differences between the OM and the 000—the ideal-for-fingerstyle 1 3/4" nut width and longer scale—made a world of difference to fingerstylists lucky enough to play an original. Moved deeply by the unique playability, tone, and near-perfect balance of the OM, lutherie vanguards like Eric Schoenberg and Santa Cruz Guitars’ Richard Hoover began to sing the praises of the model and built their own versions. By the time the ’90s rolled around, Martin could no longer ignore the clamor and the company has since responded with some fascinating evolutions and some new classics.
Holding the new OM-28E, it’s not hard to see what luthiers like Hoover and Schoenberg saw and felt in those rare originals. It’s a guitar of almost perfect proportions—both in terms of playing comfort and visual appeal—with a compact but not petite body that has an enormous effect on the sonic balance of the guitar too.
While far from ostentatious, as a 28 model, this OM comes from the fancier side of the tracks. And the herringbone binding and diamonds-and-squares inlay are both subdued and exquisite touches. But nothing illustrates just how luxurious or special a guitar this is quite like a jeweler’s-eye, up close and personal tour of the instrument. For all practical purposes, it’s flawlessly built, and tends to prompt head-slapping “oh, now I get it” responses from anyone dubious about what sets a great Martin apart. The Sitka spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides are all exceptional pieces of wood, and touches like the open-gear butterbean tuners and the back’s zigzag purfling add to the high-craft essence of the instrument.
The only design elements that upset the perfect symmetry of the OM-28E are, unfortunately, essential to the function of the Aura system—two small push knobs and a small porthole readout on the upper bout, and a battery compartment door at the end pin. For the most part, they are an inconspicuous presence, but on an otherwise gorgeous specimen of old-world-style craftsmanship, they can be visually jarring.
images of Greatness
Even if you never plugged the OM-28E into an amplifier, PA, or DAW, it would still be an immensely pleasurable playing experience. The design balance that’s so visible at a glance translates to a playing comfort that makes the guitar feel like an extension of your body and fingers at times. And that comfort facilitates a lot of very expressive playing. Leaning into the neck just a touch to lend subtle vibrato effects feels second nature. The fretboard feels fast and easy to get around in a manner that invites languid, sustaining finger-vibrato moves, pull-offs, and legato work. And the uncommon range of tones from tight low-end to ringing, defined trebles—all of which twitch with a very perceptible complexity—reward even the most subtle and nuanced playing.
This much we’re used to from a higher-end Martin OM. The addition of the Fishman F1 Aura+, however, extends the performance potential of this guitar significantly. In the simplest terms, the Aura is not a modeling system that can magically turn the OM-28 into, say, a 12-string jumbo. Instead, it’s what Fishman calls imaging—an algorithm that imparts the performance characteristics of a classic OM-28 mic’d in a studio. Because this is the Retro Series, Martin and Fishman based many images for the OM-28E on the most classic permutations of that equation imaginable— recording a classic OM in a Nashville studio with microphones like an RCA 74B and a Neumann U 47, among others.
Through a PA or an acoustic amplifier, the images lend a very real depth of field and round off the quackier aspects of the undersaddle pickup, which is blended with the image. Through a DAW and a set of headphones, the effect is especially pronounced—the gorgeous, basic voice of the OM-28E takes on a very accurate studio ambience and the performance essence of the microphone at the core of the image. It’s capable of adding a lot of vibe and atmosphere in a performance situation, but it has very real studio potential too and can be a shortcut to a very sweet tone without involving memory hogging plug-ins or tinkering with microphone placement and outboard gear.
The capabilities of the Aura system go pretty deep. When you’re getting acquainted, there’s an “easy” mode with a few easy-on-the-ears and versatile images that you can navigate with a push button. But there’s also a very capable edit function that lets you fine-tune your images for a given performance or recording situation, and access other images in the library. It’s not something we’d recommend attempting for the first time on stage—there is a learning curve when you want to get deeper into the system. But the practice and exploration that leads you to the additional images, and controls to tailor them, is a blast.
Acoustic purists will have little time or need for the Fishman Aura system onboard the OM-28E. But for players that are serious about recording and performance versatility—and getting as much of it as possible from a single, really great guitar—this OM-28E is a powerful tool. There are drawbacks to the inclusion of the Aura system—the controls look out of place and inelegant on such a perfectly gorgeous and classic-looking guitar. And the very keen eared might argue that the presence of the Aura’s circuit board upsets the reverberative balance of the guitar. But Martin and Fishman should both be applauded for applying the potential of digital processing in a way that, in the end, sounds unmistakably organic.