The Baden A-Style Ellipse Aura’s unusual cutaway design makes for an eye-catching guitar and the A-Style sounds great both as an acoustic and as an above average electro.
When Baden acoustics had their European preview at last spring’s Frankfurt Musikmesse they were a talking point of the show, for three reasons. Firstly, the man behind the project, TJ Baden, had formerly been a long-serving, influential member of the team at Taylor, ending up as vice-president of sales and marketing. Secondly, the guitars themselves presented a refreshing, modernist take on flat-top design. Reason three was mild surprise when Frankfurt-goers discovered that a range priced from near a grand and upwards was being sourced from Vietnam, a country not usually associated with building upmarket guitars.
There is one shining exception, though: the highly-regarded Ayers factory, and this is where TJ set up his manufacturing base, following a period as consultant for the Australian-owned brand. The Badens are made there by a separate, dedicated team, overseen by French master luthiers. The instruments are claimed to be totally handcrafted, without using any CNC machinery. The Baden range is based around just two body styles: the D-Style dreadnought, whose angular profile bears resemblance not to a Martin or Gibson but, slightly bizarrely, to Martin’s little Backpacker; the other shape and the subject of this review is the A-Style auditorium, which incorporates a novel approach to providing cutaway access.
Like the D-Styles, the A-Style is offered in a choice of body timbers, and our Mahogany Ellipse Aura is the cheapest electro variant, powered by Fishman’s eponymous soundhole-mounted blender preamp, as are all Baden electros. Whereas all other Badens, whether mahogany, maple or rosewood backed, employ spruce tops, the A-Style Mahogany has a cedar front. Our sample’s warm-coloured example is high grade, with even grain and plenty of cross-silking. Body binding front and back is mahogany, which theoretically could look lost against the back and sides, but a thin light-wood coachlining sits between the binding and rims and the result – under the immaculately buffed high-gloss lacquering – is very smart indeed. The rosette around the soundhole circumference is also done in mahogany.
Though the A-Style’s asymmetric body shape in effect provides a cutaway, it doesn’t do so in the conventional manner. It’s as if the treble-side upper bout has been dropped down from the neck join, and closer examination reveals – in addition to super-clean internals – that the rim and kerfed linings on that side continue across the face of the neckblock, rather than simply butting up to it as would be standard procedure. Baden has also been liberal in his interpretation of what constitutes an auditorium. He has fashioned the rims to a near-dreadnought depth of 119mm that, allied to the 400mm-wide lower bouts, classifies the guitar as a mini-jumbo as far as soundbox volume is concerned.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice a small, white triangular insert intersecting the soundhole perimeter just below the top of the fingerboard. This doesn’t serve any practical purpose: it’s a conceptual ‘keystone’, a kind of identity mark that apparently ties in with the company’s marketing and artist programmes. ‘It also points to the dovetail neck joint,’ says Baden, ‘creating the opportunity to have a discussion about handmade guitars.’ TJ Baden does live in, er, California.
The A-Style’s 644mm-scale neck – satin-finished but assuming a slick, low-gloss sheen the more the guitar is played – is one-piece mahogany topped by a gloss rosewood headstock overlay and carrying a gently cambered, bound rosewood fingerboard with side-dot markers alone. A second strap button at the heel is standard issue on all Badens. One almost expects open-back tuners by default these days but Baden eschews the retro fad and fits a set of regular enclosed machines, an appropriate choice given the guitar’s non-vintage vibe. Having said that, the neck does have a quite traditional feel, with depth increasing to a fairly chunky 25mm as you approach the heel turn. Down from the dusty end, though, things are relatively shallow, and the neck proves fast and accommodating. A 43mm nut width and 55mm bridge string spacing offer both comfortable strumming and easy fingerpicking.
The Ellipse Aura is a simplified, non-editable, non-invasive version of Fishman’s Onboard Aura, and provides four sound images blendable with the undersaddle Matrix pickup, with preset EQ apart from a bass-boost switch. There’s also phase reverse plus a switchable anti-feedback facility. Since this requires the offending frequency to be identified by activating a ‘Measure’ button it’s not something you want to be scrabbling around inside for mid-number, but rather during the soundcheck. That aside, the switches and sliders fall easily enough under a finger once you’ve remembered their location on the control panel, though bass boost on our sample was very stiff and switching it occasionally threatened to dislodge the preamp from its magnetic retaining plate.
This A-Style is a delight. The combination of cedar and mahogany – all solid, of course – works magnificently to deliver fast, responsive yet warm and fluid dynamics, while the deep body helps give the whole sound richness and a healthy projection, especially in the low end. Overlaying all this are clear, sweet-edged highs, a generous, thrummy sustain, and an all-embracing, easy-going suppleness.
The Ellipse Aura interprets these traits very well via the undersaddle transducer, and is essentially like playing the instrument unplugged, just much louder. The sound images – digitally-converted mic recordings of another A-Style Mahogany – bring useful added ambience to the party, though, as is invariably the case with blender systems, the most harmonious results are achieved with modest ratios of image to pickup. Indeed many players will probably be entirely happy with the performance of the bridge transducer on its own. I certainly am.
Having been given a head start by its eye-catching and unusual cutaway design, the A-Style Mahogany goes on to triumph as a beaut-sounding acoustic and a more than competent electro. It’s a great all-purpose player too, backed by an impeccable standard of build and finishing that must surely dispel any lingering doubts that a Vietnamese maker might not be capable of delivering the high-quality goods. The Baden crew certainly are, and they have.