Premier Guitar

Soundhole Pickup Roundup: Shadow, EMG, Seymour Duncan, Fishman & L.R. Baggs

June 17, 2009
 We've recorded sound clips of each of the pickups through a number of amps. To download all 35 clips, click here (23.1 MB Zip file). You can download the individual clips throughout the article.
Back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed Woodstock, soundhole pickups were the only choice for the acoustic guitarist who wanted to plug in. They were born bulky, soundboard- squashing and utterly artificial sounding, but recent innovations have transformed them, making them a terrific choice for the gigging guitarist who wants high feedback resistance and natural sound. We rounded up seven to test in the $150-plus range, six active and one passive: the L.R. Baggs M1 and M1 Active, the Shadow NanoMAG, the Duncan MagMic, the EMG ACS, and the Fishman Humbucking and Blend System.

Signal Chain
We installed all these pickups (non-permanently and one at a time) into Pat’s Larivee D60 guitar strung with D’Addario EXP26 Phosphor Bronze (Custom Light) strings. Because we wanted to hear how they’d respond through different amp configurations, we routed everything through a Road Rage Pro Gear TBEL in order to quickly switch between the five amps. We recorded with two ECM800 omni-directional room mics, into an Aphex 207D digital mic pre, into an RME Fireface interface to hard disc using Samplitude V8 software.

Amp Rich
We chose a small arsenal of acoustic amps. Pat brought his old standby AER Compact 60, and Gayla chose her trusty L.R. Baggs Core 1. From the current review stash at PG, we also chose the Bose L1 Compact, the Genz Benz Shenandoah Compak 300, and the Fishman SoloAmp—a broad spectrum of potential sounds.

The Method
We are not rocket scientists; we’re guitar players. This wasn’t the most scientifically pure test ever designed, but we heard what we set out to hear. Pat played the same basic series of licks with each pickup through each amp, going through the series in the same order every time: Bose, AER, Fishman SoloAmp, Genz Benz, Baggs Core 1.


Shadow NanoMAG
Download Example 1
Through Bose L1 Compact
Download Example 2
Through AER Compact 60
Download Example 3
Through Fishman SoloAmp
Download Example 4
Through Genz Benz Shenandoah Compak 300
Download Example 5
Through L.R. Baggs Core 1
The smallest of our batch of review pickups— a mere 6mm thick and 5mm high—the NanoMag actually installs via sticky tape at the end of the fingerboard, keeping it entirely out of the way. It requires a flat-ended fretboard. It’s extremely light, though the Endpin Preamp does require a 9V battery. The NanoMAG offers a standard Velcro-mounted battery case. Information on battery life was not provided in our package.

After installation, we tapped the pickup and the body to see if there was any body response, and for this pickup there was none. Then Pat strummed a G chord: the balance was good, you could really hear every string clearly, and none seemed any hotter than any of the others, although Gayla felt that the demarcation between the wound and unwound strings was slightly abrupt. It sounded good through all the amps, if a little crystalline in the highs. It would make an excellent companion with an undersaddle or soundboard pickup, in addition to being viable on its own.

Street $177
shadow-electronics.com

EMG ACS
Download Example 1
Through Bose L1 Compact
Download Example 2
Through AER Compact 60
Download Example 3
Through Fishman SoloAmp
Download Example 4
Through Genz Benz Shenandoah Compak 300
Download Example 5
Through L.R. Baggs Core 1
This pickup looks a lot bigger than it really is. It has a pretty big footprint but doesn’t go very deep into the guitar body. It’s surprisingly light at 3.5 ounces, so soundboard muting was minimal. EMG includes wrenches for easy installation and pole adjustment. The internal preamp requires a 9V battery, and EMG provides a Velcro-mounted black battery bag. Information on battery life was not included in our package.

We found it to be nicely balanced, although the wound and unwound strings do sound very different—the unwound strings were maybe just a hair hotter, but clearly different. According to their website that’s to be expected with Phosphor Bronze strings, and can be compensated for by removing the pole piece for the B string altogether, and lowering the pole for the E string below the pickup face to taste. Even so, we thought it sounded pretty damn good: powerful, dead quiet and very well balanced.

Street $150
emgpickups.com




Seymour Duncan MagMic
Download Example 1
Through Bose L1 Compact
Download Example 2
Through AER Compact 60
Download Example 3
Through Fishman SoloAmp
Download Example 4
Through Genz Benz Shenandoah Compak 300
Download Example 5
Through L.R. Baggs Core 1
For sheer acoustic woodiness, it’s hard to beat a pickup with a microphone in it. The MagMic contains an omnidirectional mic with extremely natural and airy highs to make this pickup, to quote Pat, “really guitary sounding.” With Volume and Blend dials easily accessible at either side of the strings, it’s a breeze to dial in more natural sound for “ideal” playing situations, and dial out feedback potential when it’s less than ideal.

One nifty feature is the included clips, which can be soldered in to receptors on the bottom of the pickup, allowing you to use an N battery instead the bulky 9V—although you do sacrifice some battery life. The 9V battery will get you 450 hours, and the N battery will last around 250 hours. The N battery was a modification requested by guitarist Laurence Juber, who travels a lot and doesn’t like to leave the pickup installed when he’s flying. The N battery makes it much easier to uninstall and reinstall the MagMic quickly. In fact, there are three different installation configurations, making this a remarkably versatile pickup.

Street $229
seymourduncan.com



Fishman Humbucking
Download Example 1
Through Bose L1 Compact
Download Example 2
Through AER Compact 60
Download Example 3
Through Fishman SoloAmp
Download Example 4
Through Genz Benz Shenandoah Compak 300
Download Example 5
Through L.R. Baggs Core 1
We liked this one right away because the “hearing aide”-style batteries are tucked away nicely inside the unit, which requires no fussing with bothersome wiring for a bulky battery pack. Battery life is 240 hours according to the literature in the box, or 300 according to the website. It’s also quite compact: just under 4" at its longest point and a mere 5/8" wide, and it weighs in at 2.5 ounces.

The mid-range was smooth; there was no bump at the G-string. You could hear midrange clearly throughout the spectrum. It was slightly electric-ish sounding, but the treble was good. It’s bright and sparkly without being glassy.

Street $140
fishman.com



Fishman Blend
Download Example 1
Through Bose L1 Compact
Download Example 2
Through AER Compact 60
Download Example 3
Through Fishman SoloAmp
Download Example 4
Through Genz Benz Shenandoah Compak 300
Download Example 5
Through L.R. Baggs Core 1
The basic unit is the same as the Humbucking but with a gooseneck microphone attached, dropping battery life to 110 hours.

Once again, we have to say it’s hard to beat the combination of the magnetic pickup and microphone. The response is extremely smooth and creamy; there’s no mid-range bump, and the highs are natural and airy, with woodiness to burn.


Street $300
fishman.com



L.R. Baggs M1
Download Example 1
Through Bose L1 Compact
Download Example 2
Through AER Compact 60
Download Example 3
Through Fishman SoloAmp
Download Example 4
Through Genz Benz Shenandoah Compak 300
Download Example 5
Through L.R. Baggs Core 1
The lone passive pickup we reviewed, the M1 had a microphone-like character that surprised us. This is due to the dual-coil design. One coil is suspended, allowing it to be more responsive to the body sound. An excellent choice for non-permanent installation, Baggs includes a cable with a 1/4" plug. This is the only pickup we reviewed that detaches from its wiring via 1/8" plug, so it can be easily uninstalled and reinstalled. The big kudos to Baggs in the design: the adjustment pole pieces are not threaded above the pickup face, so fingerstyle players won’t catch their nails on the poles. We found it extremely natural and pleasant sounding, with warm mids and breathy highs, though with the lower output you may want a preamp.

Street $139
lrbaggs.com



L.R. Baggs M1 Active
Download Example 1
Through Bose L1 Compact
Download Example 2
Through AER Compact 60
Download Example 3
Through Fishman SoloAmp
Download Example 4
Through Genz Benz Shenandoah Compak 300
Download Example 5
Through L.R. Baggs Core 1
The M1Active was by far the hottest of all the pickups we reviewed. The pickup itself is the same as the passive version, but with a built-in, class-A preamp in that eliminates the need for an external one. The battery is a flat CR2032 and Baggs thoughtfully includes a spare. According to the literature, battery life is 1000 hours or more, or approximately 250 gigs, making it the battery- life champion of the bunch. The battery change is very quick and easy.

The high end is much more defined than with the passive version, and the treble sparkles nicely. Some of the amps emphasized the mid-range a bit, but it was very smooth with no distracting hump at the G-string. It was incredibly even all the way across the strings, with a warm and natural sound.

Street $169
lrbaggs.com