Two great magnetic soundhole pickups.
by Teja Gerken
October 12, 2020
Using technology similar to that used in electric guitar pickups, magnetic pickups that mount in the soundhole were the earliest options for amplifying acoustic guitars. While many manufacturers of electric guitar pickups continue to build exact replicas of 1950s and ’60s designs, magnetic pickups for acoustic guitars have become highly advanced, offering much richer sounds, less noise, and more features than soundhole pickups of the past. L.R. Baggs’s M1 Active and M80 (as well as the passive M1) magnetic pickups have been part of the company’s line for several years, and while they’re similar, they also have some significant differences. I have used both pickups at various times, but never compared them side-by-side, so for this video, I took them both into the Peghead Nation studio where I checked them out in my 1994 Taylor 712c.
The M1 Active and M80 share a similar underlying design. Both use a stacked humbucking coil configuration, include a built-in preamp, and have plastic housings with identical dimensions. Both are powered by a small CR2032 button-style battery, have adjustable pole pieces and a volume control, and are secured in the soundhole with a simple clamping mechanism that requires no modifications to the instrument. Both pickups have a ⅛-inch mini-jack that can either connect to a wiring harness via a standard endpin jack installed in the guitar or directly to a longer cable hanging out of the soundhole for more temporary installations.
The inherent design feature that sets the M1 and the M80 apart from other soundhole pickups is also where they differ the most. Because it is suspended inside the pickup’s enclosure, the lower coil of the stacked humbucking arrangement is able to not only eliminate electronic hum and noise, it also makes the pickup sensitive to body vibrations as well as the movement of the strings, yielding a sound comparable to that of dual-source setups that combine a pickup and a microphone. On the M80, L.R. Baggs further developed the original M1 suspension, which resulted in a three-dimensional sensor that gives the pickup much greater sensibility to body vibrations, yielding a more complex tonality. The M80 also has a battery-check function and switch for active or passive operation.
Because of their easy installation, I was able to check out both pickups on the same guitar, playing three identical phrases, including fingerstyle, percussive body slaps, and strumming, with each pickup plugged into an AER Compact 60 amp. Both pickups offered the warm tone, excellent bass response, and smooth attack that magnetic pickups are known for, but there was no denying that the M80 had the edge in terms of delivering a more complex and natural acoustic tonality. This will likely make the M80 the better choice for solo performers, though some players, including those playing in bands or very loud settings, may prefer the more straightforward character of the M1 Active. Ultimately the choice will come down to personal preference.
Overall, this test showed why L.R. Baggs’s magnetic pickups have been highly successful. Anyone looking to amplify a flattop steel-string guitar who prefers the magnetic pickup design’s slightly more “electric” quality over bridge- or soundboard-mounted options should check out the M1 Active or M80.
SPECS: Magnetic soundhole pickups. Stacked humbucking design with suspended lower coil. Adjustable pole pieces. Powered by CR2032 battery. Battery-check function and active/passive switch (M80). Made in USA. $199 (M1 Active)/$249 (M80) street. lrbaggs.com
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