Wow, this is such a hot topic these days ... and there is so much to cover it could go on forever, but I promise I'll cut straight to the point and keep it brief and bring you the info you need as quickly as possible. ... You're welcome! Let's dive in.
First the history. Putting a pickup on your acoustic guitar became a big thing in the folk-fuled 1960's and 70's. Then you had two options (apart from just micing it, which SUCKED), magnetic sound-hole pickups or a stick-on piezo transducer. Neither sounded very good, both required an appropriate off-board pre-amp to sound their best, and and certainly they were not very true to the acoustic tone. Because of that last part, we saw a brand new product arrive in the 70's, the under-saddle piezo transducer. The early models, like the Martin thinline and the like, ALSO required an external pre-amp to sound their best ... but with such a pre-amp they actually sounded a LOT more like a true acoustic guitar than anything thus far had. This ladies and gents is why many folks who remember the 70's believe deeply that the under-saddle setup is the ONLY way to properly amplify an acoustic guitar.
But folks, technology never stands still, so please don't let your mind stand still either :-)
Today (2020 as I pen this) there are several great sounding systems that are NOT under-saddle pickups. Let's talk options in a bullet-point forum. There are already plenty of "10-best" type blogs out there (I'll link to my favs at the end) ... and so this will NOT simply be a list of what's out there. This WILL be a overview of the technology/topology options. If, say, you decide a sound-hole magnetic pickup is your best option, then I'll leave it up to you to decide exactly WHAT sound-hole pickup meets YOUR needs best. Got it? Okay, let's move.
1) Under-saddle piezo systems: If you want simplicity, good sound, and maybe even some bells n whistles!
Yep, as a general rule, they mostly sound okay, and now they are cheap as all get-out and almost ALWAYS include on-board electronics that have tone-shaping controls, a tuner, and who-knows-what else! Almost 100% are manufactured in China these days, and the quality control ain't what it used to be. But still, as a rule, these systems sound quite acceptable, and make plugging in and sounding decent easy-peasy. So my take-away is this: Yep, STILL the way to go for cheap, quick, easy, and full featured acoustic guitar amplification.
If THIS cheapo is what you think of when you think of an under-saddle system (yuck):
This system will blow your mind with it's beauty and elegance:
2) Contact pickups: If you want as close to "real" acoustic tone as possible!
WOW has this option changed over the decades! 25-years ago you pretty much had ONE option, the Barcus Berry stick-on piezo transducer, and accompanying pre-amp (still a nice sounding rig, btw). Today, however, there are numerous companies out there using the "stick-on" (or glue on) form factor. On the bottom end is pure cheap junk, basically just Chinese made raw piezo buzzer elements with a 1/4" jack wired to them. STAY AWAY!!! However, there are now several awesome new versions of the contact pickup out there. From the uber-simple and actually pretty decent sounding K&K systems to ultra high-dollar rigs with high-end external pre-amps, there are now MANY options. Check them out if ya just gotta have your acoustic sound like an acoustic!
If THIS is your idea of a contact pickup (ugg):
Be prepared to be blown away by the beautiful tone of this model by K&K!
3) Sound-hole mount pickups: When ya just CAN'T cut into your guitar!
Again, these things have been around since the late 70's, and again ... boy have they came a LONG way since then! The early models were weak, thin, and decisively NOT very acoustic sounding. I heard my first sunrise sound-hole pickup about 2001 when I was the audio producer on a major network Music TV show, and that's when I knew things had changed! That thing sounded sweeet. Today, there are several OUTSTANDING soundhole pickup options out there, these will give an excellent tone and not even put so much as a scuff on your fine instrument!
If THIS is your idea of what a soundhole pickup is (YUCK!!!):
Hold on to your hat when you hear the beauty of this very, VERY good sounding modern soundhole acoustic pickup:
4) The combo-options: When none of the above quite get ya where ya need to be!
Sometimes you need the immediate tone and the volume of something like a under-saddle or soundhole pickup, but just NEED it to sound a bit more like a 100% genuine acoustic guitar. For decades now, that's where the "blender" type systems come in, allowing you to blend in some actual acoustic sound captured by an honest to goodness microphone ! In, say, 1985 there were few options for this, and they were generally quite fussy, clumsy, and ridiculously expensive! Check out all the cool options today, there are tons of options but here is a crowd favorite that also happens to be a personal fav of mine. If you can't get a GREAT tone out of this LR Baggs Anthem system ... well shoot, ya probably outta just sell all your guitars and quit playing!
I just found this whilst doing research for this blog, I have no personal experience with this pickup by KNA but I'm VERY intrigued to say the least, and judging by all the excellent reviews, it's fair to assume it sounds good. What pray-tell is it? It's a gosh-darn under-saddle piezo pickup that ... well ... doesn't actually need to be INSTALLED under the saddle! Seriously folks, this is ingenious! Ya gotta at least check this out, they even make a version for classical guitars, too: