Opinion of Martin’s Retro Series Guitars?

A reader inquires about the high-end line of acoustic-electric Martins.

I am most interested in trying out the new retro series especially the HD-28E Retro and D-45E Retro. Have you tried these and what do you think?

Mark E.
Bradenton, Florida

Spoon Writes:

I own a D-18E Retro. I have played all the other Retro models as well. The two major factors that set them apart from the Vintage series guitars they were based upon are the new high performance neck instead of the modified V necks, and the on-board Fishman Aura F1 Plus electronic pickup system.

What sets the Retros apart from other Aura-equipped Martins rests with the fact the “microphone images” installed in the on-board computer were captured using rare vintage Martins recorded through priceless vintage microphones. The marketing implications are obvious; plug in and sound like you are playing a pre-war Martin worth tens of thousands of dollars. But this is not modeling technology.

The guitar still sounds like the modern Martin it is, but it does make for a very good plugged-in experience, which is more “acoustic” than perhaps any other pickup system out there.

Martin executives were skeptical when someone first proposed to use images not from the specific model they were currently making, but rather images from much older guitars, made with different species of tonewoods, like Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce. But they were excited at the initial results, and went ahead with the project. They were even more happy with the finished products.

According to sources high up inside Martin, the tweaking done to fit the Retro images with the guitars they were installed in required considerable engineering and a melding of the sounds of the old and new guitars. And I will say my D-18E Retro has a Sitka spruce top, but it also has a certain dry pop and chimier ring to it when amplified that reminds me of Adirondack spruce, as found on the 1939 D-18 that supplied the Aura images.

In terms of the acoustic guitar, the Retro series dreadnoughts have forward-shifted, scalloped braces under a high quality Sitka spruce soundboard, and Indian rosewood back and sides, with mahogany used for the D-18E Retro, just like the Vintage series dreads. They are all very good guitars, with voices rich, resonant, and powerful.

While some traditionalists cannot imagine buying a venerable D-45 with the newfangled neck, I am sure many said the same thing about the D-45 when it moved to the low profile neck of the 1990s. But many more traditionalists cannot imagine why anyone would pay the price required for a top of the line D-45 to get a guitar with three holes cut in the side and invasive electronics installed. I guess it depends on how badly one wants a D-45 with plug-and-play electrified sound that offers advanced, programmable tone adjustment.

While the Fishman Aura F1 Plus requires complicated science to work, it is extremely easy to employ from the player’s standpoint. In practical terms, it removes a great deal of the artificial sound of under saddle and magnetic sound hole pickups, and brings back the sound of an acoustic guitar, particularly where the unwound treble strings are concerned, which lose almost all of the typical “quack,” and sound much more like what the guitar is supposed to sound like.

In reality, Aura-equipped Martins sound less like an unplugged acoustic guitar than they do an unplugged acoustic guitar heard through a microphone, including phenomena associated with proximity effect and plate reflection, etc. They sound most like a miked guitar through larger PAs, which move a lot of air, but still sound very good through smaller amps, even if they tend to have more of a pickup-ness.

A greatly simplified explanation of the extremely complex efforts required for the Aura system goes like this:

The folks at Fishman Electronics take a guitar, like a D-18, and they record it through its under saddle pickup while also recording it with an elite professional recording studio microphone, like a Neumann U87. They take the resulting sound files, slice them into over 1,000 tiny pieces, and apply EQ and other special effects to transform the wave form of the pickup to be as identical to the microphone wave form as possible. They do this with various microphones at various positions, and pick the best 9 results to load into the computer on the guitar’s Aura system.

When a particular microphone image is chosen, the player can blend as much of that image into the pickup signal as they wish (typically 40% – 60%.) And they may now tweak it further by adjusting bass, mids, treble, applying compression, etc., and those settings can be saved.

The “Plus” to this latest Aura system is the plug-and-play easy mode, which provides 3 preset images, designed for solo playing of fingerstyle and light strumming, flatpicking and lead guitar, and a more compressed sound profile for playing in a large band. I have never found my easy mode images all that impressive, so I use a variety of the fully programmable 9 microphone images, and rarely need to alter them with the on-board tone controls.

But the most amazing part is the exclusive algorithm running inside the Aura F1 Plus, which adjusts in real time to the player’s strumming, picking, and changes in stress and attack, squelching unwanted pickup sort of tones and applying excellent anti-feedback protection. And included in this real time juggling act is the use of micro-delay that approximates the time it takes sound waves to leave the guitar and reach the diaphragm of the microphone, if there was a real microphone present.

I can fool the Aura sometimes, when changing attack abruptly, and may get a bit of bark or quack at times, but nothing like other pickup systems I know of. While the Aura system might never sound exactly like an acoustic guitar, its ease of use and good quality sound makes it very worthwhile. I am also extremely fond of the on-board tuner and phase switch, as well as the new end pin installation, which has a 1/4″ jack that is separate from the strap button, and a hatch for the battery, so I no longer have to loosen my strings to change it.

As for that neck, well, it is a sign of the times. Martin has been converting many of their Standard series models to the new neck, while incorporating many specs found in the Vintage series, which is being phased out. The new OM-28 has the herringbone trim and diamond fingerboard markers of the retired OM-28V and the current D-18 has looks, bracing and wood of the late D-18V.

So, the D-18E Retro is identical to the Standard series D-18, except for the material used for the saddle. Martin’s lengthy experiments have led them to feel that the artificial Tusq material works best with the under saddle pickups, mainly because natural materials like bone are often filled with microscopic air pockets, which can adversely affect plugged-in tone production. If someone really wants bone for that extra clarity and sustain, it is easy enough to change the saddle.

The high performance neck is a combination of Martin’s modified low oval profile and the Performing Artist taper, thus named because it was introduced on the Performing Artist series of guitars. It has a width at nut of 1-3/4″, but the width at the 12th fret is 2-1/8″, the same as their traditional 1-11/16″ neck. So it has a shallow, slightly rounded carve to the neck, a touch deeper and less flat than the Performing Artist series necks, matched with a sleek fingerboard width, which is cheated out just a touch down in the cowboy chord area of the first three frets.

My casual polling suggests it is thought of most highly by people used to Martin’s 1-11/16″ neck than those used to the traditional 1-3/4″ neck, which is 2-1/4″ at the 12th fret.

This likely has to do with the fact the string spacing for the new neck is 2-3/16″, 1/16″ wider than what comes with the 1-11/16″ neck , but anywhere from 1/16″ to 3/16″ narrower than the various OMs and dreadnoughts with a traditional 1-3/4″ neck.

As with all guitar necks, some folks love the new Martin neck, some folks do not love it, and others are indifferent. I find I like having the sleeker, lower profile all the way up by guitar’s body. But I would actually have preferred the even lower profile of the PA series guitars.

As the only regular catalog Martins that feature both Aura electronics and a traditional, hand-fitted dovetail neck joint, the Retros make excellent acoustic guitars, even if a player rarely needs to plug in. But they might want to weigh the value of an on-board tuner if they do not expect to need advanced electronics on a regular basis. As of yet there is not a  version of the D-28 or D-45 outside of the Retro series with the high performance neck, but it is likely only a matter of time before there is.

Here is a video featuring a Martin HD-28 with a traditional Fishman under saddle pickup, and a Martin D-18E Retro, with a Neumann U64 microphone image engaged, and with the on-board EQ set flat. If you jump to the 2:15 mark, where each guitarists takes a lead, you will get the best comparison.




15 thoughts on “Opinion of Martin’s Retro Series Guitars?

  1. In 2014 I bought the OM-28 Retro and although it was good, I was disappointed with it after comparing it with a Vintage brand Gordon Giltrap top of the range acoustic/electric that blew the Martin away, tonally and playing wise. Needless to say I moved it on. It speaks volumes that Martin discontinued these and I recently picked up a used 000-17 that also sounded better than the Retro, after I fitted a Mimesis sound hole pickup (now Fishman Rare Earth) . Maybe I had a bad one, but I didn’t like the electrics one bit, as it was a challenge to set up and get a satisfying result. By comparison I was able to take the Vintage ‘Giltrap’ on stage on our theatre shows and get a great sound which is what I had expected from the Retro. Last week after two days of owning it, I gigged the 000-17 and that too sounded great, as good as the Vintage, so I put it down to the pickup system as the Vintage employs the Fishman Rare Earth blend system, but I don’t use the mic, only the pickup.

    1. They Retro Series instruments are polarizing. The relatively complicated controls led Chris Martin to abandon the side panel in exchange for the Aura system they use now on their Standard Series guitars, with discrete sound hole controls and only one Aura image. And since they were moving the Vintage Series looks to the Standard Series, the Retros had become redundant, except for the fact they were using actual pre-war Martins to make the Aura mic images.

      To this day there is no pick-up or system that sounds more like a microphone without actually using a microphone than the Fishman Aura system.

      Some players are very unhappy the Retros were discontinued, and used ones with the full Aura controls placed in the side of the guitar sell for much higher than logic might dictate. While few people did a deep dive into EQ parameters, they did allow detailed micro-management including the availability of a compressor. Personally, I very much liked having the built-in phase switch and tuner. But my fretting hand does not get along with Martin’s modern neck shape, so my Retro didn’t last long.

      But if one is content using a magnetic sound hole pickup or prefers the sound of an African mahogany guitar that costs half the price of an Indian rosewood Martin, then the worth of the Aura technology in an OM-28E Retro is negligible.

  2. Is there any difference between a 2016 and 20-7 D-18e? I thought I was getting a 2017 but checked and the serial number indicates it’s a 2016.

    1. I am assume in you asking about the D-18E Retro, with the Aura system and mic images recorded from a pre-war D-18, and NOT the standard D-18E, that does not have all the Retro Series bells and whistles.

      2016 was the first year for the F1+ version of the Aura on-board computer on the E-Retro, which came with default EZ Mode mic image choices – designed for fingerpicking, flatpicking, and sort of strumming/in between the other two. No one I know used them, but chose instead to pick one of the 9 images and sculpt the EQ, etc. and save that and use that.

      I do not know the date of when Martin got rid of the full-blown Aura F1+ set up (knobs, read-out with tuner and phase shift in the side of the guitar) and switched to the streamlined Aura set up, which has one preset mic image and tone and volume controls inside the sound hole. That may not have arrived until 2018. I have never been given a date from Martin as per the switch. But a 2016 will have the full Retro Aura with nine different mic images to choose from and many more options in terms of tone control.

    1. Greg, that is very much a matter of opinion. Do you like the sound of mahogany, or rosewood? Do you want the biggest bass string throb you can get? Or do you want a nice bass but with an articulate note that stand out?

      If you like warmth but with fundamental notes that are stronger and clearer than the harmonic overtones, get the 18, which is mahogany with Sitka spruce. If you want a lush voice with fundamental notes jump out but then sustain with thicker cushion of warmth and complex resonance, get the 35, with Indian rosewood and European spruce. That is MY opinion. Other may say differently as to what you “should get.”

    2. I bought both the 35 and 28 retros, hoping the 35s euro top would pleaseme, like an old 35. I have alway loved the old 35’s.

      Ultimately, the straight bracing did not offer the scalloped and advanced bracing the 28 had, and i chose the 28. Returned the 35, which i really wanted to love.

      Simply, as the owner of several dreds, authentics, my old 68 d28, i am hugely pleased with the unplugged sound and playabilty of my aura plus retro. Its a great guitar. Even better plugged in. Electronics are easy once you take three minutes to read the brochure.

  3. Having converted to Taylor from Martin, I have again reverted to Martin after buying a Retro which is a wonderful instrument. I special like the modern neck which is fast and easy to play lead with. As for the pick ups, they beat my Taylor Expressions hollow. I wont get rid of my Taylor but it is presently sitting in its case while I enjoy playing the Martin. Mind you both these guitars are absolutely tops and I am glad I have them but the Retro came as a shock and I am glad because I now have a Martin that I can enjoy playing.

  4. You mentioned d28 and d45 not having the performance neck outside of the retro versions. What about the d18?

    1. Richard, the D-18 received a “makeover” some years ago. Basically, it got the specs of the D-18V, including forward-shifted scalloped braces, ebony fingerboard and bridge, tortoise trim, except that it received the High Performance Neck. It is identical in all respects to the D-18E Retro, without the electronics. The 000-18 was given the same makeover.

      The Standard Series version of the other Retro Series dreadnoughts, the D-28, D-35, and D-45, have the 1-11/16″ Low Profile Neck.

      At present, those instruments, along with the HD-28, D-41, D-42, and 000-28 all sell too well with their current designs to justify a makeover.

  5. Pat, in Dayton, Nv. I just ordered an HD28E from Chicago Music exchange, and can hardly wait. I didn’t want it sitting in a freight terminal over the weekend, so told them to ship Monday. I have many gretsches, gibsons, etc. so this is my first Martin. I kept hearing them on line, and couldn’t believe my ears. I am a Chet thumb & fingerstyle picker, so it will be worlds better than my old Dean spruce top. At one time I had over 30 high dollar guitars, now down to 7, plus the new one coming. Couldn’t pass up the new one after hearing it on line. No one in Reno had one to even play, or hear, so after spending 3 or 4 days on the internet, listening, filching videos to watch on the E model, I just gave in, and ordered a new one. So, I will let all know what I find, and am expecting all GOOD. Meanwhile, I still have my ’59 6122T re-creation thanks to Paul Yandell, and Chet. Also same guitar but Hall of fame, “what flame.”, I can test drive my Gibby Chet nylon string studio classic, the Martin will be in good company. Now, if I could just get my arthritis to ease a bit, I would be in heaven…..PeeBee.

  6. Really enjoyed the article. I found this most interesting as I have to decide whether or not to trade my 1971 D18 fitted with a fishman Matrix Infinity (Sounds amazing) but needs a a neck reset and work to the saddle. Been quoted $800 to do the work in NYC but wondering if I should use the money, plus a little extra I suspect and trade in for the D18 Retro. This new Retro model sounds great I tried one recently but the neck, although fast and easy to play is not as comfortable as my d18. Maybe that’s just familiarity but I’d be most grateful for any feedback.

    1. Hi Tony and welcome to One Man’s Guitar.

      As the saying goes, one man’s V is another man’s poison. I can understand why someone used to playing a Martin with the traditional “full thickness” neck might find the new “high performance” neck too different to be deemed comfortable. Personally, I do not like that neck on the D-18 and D-18E Retro nearly as much as the Performing Artist necks, which have the same taper from 1-3/4″ to 1-2/8″ at the 12th fret, but have a flatter crave to the back of the neck, more like Martin’s Low Profile shape, only it is even shallower.

      I like the early 70s necks a lot. But I tend to play the modified V necks simply because they come with the models I most want to play. Playing with pain is part of the game. At least it is for me, since the game was once high school football, which has come back to haunt my left thumb and wrist.

      It is entirely possible you will get used to the new neck and if you do not have the arthritis issues I do will come to find it easy to play.

      The bottom line is, the Aura F1 plus provides plugged in tone without external pedals that is “acoustic guitar” sounding to the ear than any other system of know of. But there are alternatives that still sound good, if not quite the same.

  7. Wow. Great review of the new modern tech and yet honor the past. I can’t wait to try the Retro series. Thanks again for your review.

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