I have by no means tried them all - But I've tried all the Duncans, the Classic 57s, Harmoinic Design, and Wolfetone Legends. I like the Seth Lovers best. But I want to try the Wolfetone Dr. Vs too. It's very important to me that it be unpotted.
+1 on Jon Moore...others to consider are HighOrder pups, BG Buckers (Bryan Gunsher)...both of these will run you about $70 per pickup...but are everybit as good as those running you $140+ per pickup (I know, I've tried some of the higher dollar boutique boys...Holmes, WCR, Wolfetone, Motor City, White, BareKnuckle). These are all good, but J. Moore, High Order and Byan Gunsher offer the same quality at over half the price...check 'em out.
I've also heard great things about GFS pups, but have yet to try those..they are a real bargain at under $50 for a set :AOK
Alot of good things about his pups on the Les Paul Forum and his prices are good. Very good and detailed email questions with fast responses about what I'm looking for too. Can't wait to check them out.
I got my money on the BurstBuckers; don't quite agree to AMSnell, I think the '59s and the other PAF-like consumer SDs except the 'Seth Lover's don't even come close to PAF territory, they just seem lifeless and boring, no delicious PAF dynamic.
you are going to have to go after a small unknown (relatively). like moore or high order. i would not recommend any gibson pickup being currently made. just get a couple of duncans and you will be close enough. if there really was a magical cheap paf it wouldnt be cheap now would it?
Given that you said "PAF without the boutique price...", that limits the field some.
First, you need to seperate the candidates into custom wound/hand guided by formula vs. machine/production wound to a spec.
If we were to say custom wound/hand guided to a particular formula (like boutiques) in say, the $180.00/pr. mark or less I can think of three good ones that fit into that catagory:
Jon Moore $180.00/set
Of these three, I've never tried the Jon Moore's, but I've heard nothing but good things about them.
I own both the Highorders and the Guitarforce, and both are excellent, but for different reasons. My Highorders are an A3 neck/A4 bridge set that have a sweet early PAF tone.
My Guitarforce pickups are the Lord of the Blues A4 set that are my newest humbuckers. They are to me, the most PAF-like I've tried...but you have to remember that PAF is a somewhat ambiguous term. They sound like a really good PAF the way I hear a PAF in my head. I wanted a set of humbuckers that through the right amps, could do early Bluesbreakers Clapton to Duane Allman Fillmore and a lot of tone in between. They absolutely do it. The reason I have an asterik * after the price is because if you go on E-Bay, you can find an on-running auction for a set of these (or any custom wound Guitarforce set) for $125.00. At that price, they are an absolute steal...
If you're constrained by money, the next tier down is the Tonerider A4 set (below $100.00/set) and then the GFS set(s) (well below $100.00/set). Both give great bang for the buck, and my personal choice between the two would be the Toneriders.
BTW: I have no affiliation with any of these pickup makers...I'm just a gear junkie who's tried a few pickups over the years...
People seem to immediately dismiss the Gibson PAFs. From my experience (which is limited to Gibson, WCR, PRS and SD) they all sound pretty similar. There is a Tonequest report where they state that the Gibson '57 Classic is their favorite PAF, even above the boutique makers. As I understand it, Burstbuckers are the same as the '57 Classics except that the coils are unbalanced, and I also think the aftermarket version is unpotted. Unbalanced should be closer to the real thing.
Anyway it's all subjective, but I don't think you have to spend boutique prices for this.