A Guide to Buying an Affordable Violin Outfit
Today's market offers good values at every price point under $2,000
“The quality of these is so much better than I expected,” said strings educator Miriam Kammen, referring to the 18 violin outfits assembled in the Strings studio for inspection by a panel of professional players and teachers. Times have changed since Strings’ 2001 roundup of student violin outfits. The good news for consumers: the tsunami of stringed instruments being imported from China and Eastern Europe has driven prices down while, generally speaking, competition has improved the quality of student instruments.
So I decided to survey what’s on the market for student-level violin outfits priced under $2,000, including a violin, case, and bow.
At first, I envisioned our imaginary shopper as a beginner of any age ready to buy a first instrument after renting or borrowing for a period, hence the need for an outfit. But in reality, the instruments that arrived for review ranged from inexpensive beginner models to sophisticated violins appropriate for the college-bound student or even the budget-strapped professional.
And there are great values to fit any budget.
Our review panel included three professional musicians who also teach, and who could test drive each outfit and offer comments. The panel represented a variety of playing styles, musical perspectives, and tastes. The panel included violin and violist Mads Tolling, a member of the Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet; and violinist Evan Price, a former member of Turtle Island and now with the Hot Club of San Francisco. Both are classically trained and play a variety of styles, including jazz. String educator Miriam Kammen is a 50-year veteran of such orchestras as the Indianapolis Symphony, Houston Symphony, and Oakland East Bay Symphony. She still maintains a busy teaching studio in her semi-retirement.
All three musicians took turns playing and listening to the instruments and bows, inspecting cases, and also playing the violins with Price’s CodaBow Diamond NX.
Who Benefits from Buying an Outfit?
A hundred years ago, Sears Roebuck supplied rural Americans, who might never see the inside of a violin shop, with outfits that included everything necessary to get started, even an instruction manual. Today, for a beginner starting from scratch, the simplicity of having everything you need to get going in one convenient package can remove one more barrier to getting started, as selecting all those items separately can be overwhelming at first.
For more experienced players who already have a case and/or bow that they like, or who have definite preferences in bows, an outfit may not be the best route. For those who prefer to choose their own outfit, some violin shops offer a discount on a case and bow of comparable quality when you buy an instrument from them, so a customer can set an overall budget and then custom build an outfit that fits that budget.
What to Expect from Pricing
Sometimes outfit pricing represents significant savings over buying all of the items separately. In other instances, the savings is minimal, but not necessarily a bad deal. On the Internet, some violin companies show the price of each item so you can calculate the savings or order a la carte.
The violin itself is the most expensive component of an outfit. In some instances, that’s basically the total value of the outfit—an inexpensive case, bow, and rosin are “thrown in” to get you started. Even the least expensive outfits in our collection included a serviceable bow, but this is not always so. Sometimes the included bow is of such poor quality that it is worth less than the cost of rehairing. Such bows are typically difficult to control, don’t draw a good tone, and are frustrating to use, especially for a relative beginner. In this case, the teacher often will recommend that a student get a better bow. Don’t forget to include this in your budget.
Some outfits, particularly at the higher end of our range, dedicate a significant portion of the total price to a quality bow. The included bow may or may not ultimately be the right bow for you, but at least you’ll have something reasonably good to play in the meantime, something worth keeping as a second bow or possibly worth some money in trade toward a better bow of your choosing.
But if you’re set for bows, a la carte might be the better deal.
All of our outfits arrived in good- or better-quality cases that would provide adequate protection. The least-expensive cases were made of lightweight foam with nylon covers and zippers. Most outfits were housed in attractive oblong cases constructed of foam, plywood, or a combination, which typically retail individually in the $100–$200 range.
How to Evaluate the Quality of an Outfit
The panelists were quite consistent about what they wanted to hear in a violin. These terms came up again and again: open, rich, warm, brilliant, sweet, focus, clarity, purity, projection, balance, evenness from string to string, personality, and character. Kammen was particularly interested in hearing a pure tone at the very top of the E string, though she noted that most students would not be playing in that range.
“You can see a change of bow can make a lot of difference,” Kammen remarked when switching to a better bow transformed one of our less-expensive models. Indeed, a change of bow can make a real difference in clarity and quality of sound. Occasionally, however, a better bow doesn’t make much difference if the instrument doesn’t have more to give. “The violin sets the limit for how good it’s going to sound,” Tolling observed.
The higher-end outfits typically included more sophisticated pernambuco or carbon-fiber bows. But as Price said of a top-end outfit, “This bow is just fine. But this violin actually deserves a better bow.”
Strings also can make a difference in sound. On one violin, Price immediately recognized the strings that he uses on his own violin and thought they made a big difference in the sound. Most of our outfits were strung with quality strings—even so, panelists occasionally remarked that an instrument might respond more favorably to a different type of strings.
When evaluating an instrument, remember that the projected and under-ear sounds can be quite different. “Sounds great under the ear, then shallower at a distance,” remarked Price of one violin. For a beginner instrument, a satisfying under-ear sound is most important. But if projection is a concern for you, make sure to have someone play it so you can step back and hear the projected sound.
It’s also important to note that first impressions aren’t always the best judge of an outfit’s quality. Our panelists sometimes changed their minds over time—first impressions are important, but perception can change with further listening. Don’t be afraid to give an instrument a little more time if you’re not sure about its desirability.
And even expert listeners can disagree. “It sounds mellower up here,” remarked Kammen on one occasion. “I heard exactly the opposite,” replied Price.
Plus, different sounds suit different kinds of music. Occasionally one of the panelists would suggest that the sound of an instrument would suit a certain type of music, such as bluegrass or jazz. Panelists felt that other instruments had a “violinistic” tone.
Bottom line: when it comes to value for the money, sound quality doesn’t necessarily correspond to price. Some less expensive instruments outperform pricier ones.
Under $700: Beginner Instrument
A beginner violin and bow should not create barriers to learning—stringed instruments are hard enough to learn without struggling with an instrument and bow that don’t work well. Look for a violin that is easy to play and sounds pleasant under the ear rather than focusing on projection. The best beginning instruments have a “sweet spot” that is easy to find and makes a clear, satisfying, if simple tone. The sound should be fairly even from string to string. No one note should pop out or be weaker than the others, nor should the sound be fuzzy.
Expect these minimum setup standards even on an inexpensive instrument: The pegs and fine tuners must work. The strings should be neither too high nor too low. There should be plenty of bow clearance from string to string without hitting the edges of the instrument when bowing the outer strings. If the bridge feet don’t fit, the bridge can be prone to falling over. The fingerboard must be accurately planed so that every note can be played clearly, and the nut (where the strings cross into the peg box) must be properly shaped, both for comfort and so the strings don’t break. The strings should be good quality. Consider upgrading them if the teacher recommends it, as strings make a big difference in sound.
Visually, it should be attractive and blend in with older instruments in the classroom—probably not bright orange! The lightweight foam cases that came with our entry-level instruments all offered adequate protection.
Expect a strong brazilwood or fiberglass bow that meets minimum standards: The stick should not warp or twist with the hair tightened. It should be filled with a flat, even ribbon of good- quality white horse hair with no clumps or gaps. The screw should turn easily to playing tension and loosen the hair all the way. The bow should draw smoothly from end to end without wobbling; if it is not adequate, consider upgrading to a better-quality brazilwood bow.
Where to buy: Internet, school-band and orchestra stores, full-line music stores, and some violin shops.
$800 to $1,200: Step-Up or Deluxe-Beginner Instrument
At this level, expect a good setup or better. Most of the outfits our panel reviewed at this price point had a higher-quality bridge and tailpiece than the aforementioned beginner instruments with more attention paid to the carving of the bridge and dressing of the fingerboard.
Listen for some character and variety in the sound, and begin to consider the projected tone. In this price range, some of the violins sported a more sophisticated appearance with better-quality carving, some shading in the varnish, or light antiquing. Others still looked like factory fare. Some drew an admiring, “Not bad!” But panelists also used such terms as “covered,” “boxy,” “not well balanced.”
Most outfits at this price point came in oblong foam cases with tough nylon covers, hinges, and latches. Bows were usually constructed of pernambuco and individually would sell for $90–$200. A more advanced player might consider a bow upgrade.
Where to buy: school-band and orchestra stores, full-line music stores, violin shops, and online violin retailers.
$1,700 to $2,000: Advanced-Student or Professional Second Instrument
“I would definitely not be bothered by having this in my closet as a backup instrument,” said Evan Price, admiring one of the outfits in this price point. Other instruments in this range drew similar compliments. In Kammen’s opinion, the best violins reviewed in this group would be good enough to take a student through college.
At this price, expect a professional setup with a good-quality, well-cut bridge, good strings, more attention to details such as neck and fingerboard shape. Better-quality wood plus more time spent on factors that affect tone, such as arching and thicknessing of tops and backs, result in a more refined, more responsive instrument.
In terms of tone, look for a strong, open, clean sound, richer and more nuanced than less-expensive instruments and with some personality. Some of the violins in this group sounded less warm than the step-up instruments or even slightly harsh under the ear, but that surface noise was not apparent in the projected sound. The best projected sounds were pure, rich, and warm, even in the highest register.
In terms of appearance, this group of violins was more sophisticated, usually with a more hand-carved look, better varnish, and some individual character. Several were heavily antiqued.
The pernambuco and carbon-fiber bows in this range were a definite step up in quality, retailing individually for $150–$350. Cases were, for the most part sturdier and heavier, constructed of wood or a combination of wood and foam.
Where to buy: violin shops and online violin retailers.
Student II violin outfit
Dart-shaped foam case
$245 (MSRP); stentor-music.com
The Stentor’s shiny appearance and metal tailpiece don’t hide its humble factory origins, but this beginner’s violin makes it easy to get a loud, clear, satisfying sound. Everything works: the Stentor stays in tune, the strings are the right height, with easy bow clearance, and the violin speaks easily. The brazilwood bow is straight and strong.
John Juzek 100 violin
Glasser X-series carbon-graphite bow
Oblong foam case
$600 (MSRP); metmusic.com
Our panel noticed the difference between this fiddle’s limited projection and its friendly under-ear sound. “Actually, this is fun to play,” said Price. “It’s even, it’s responsive.” Unlike most instruments, the sound did not improve much with a better bow. But panelists’ opinions did improve with more playing and listening. The Juzek drew praise for value and quality pegs that really worked.
Becker Symphony Series
1000SG Symphony Line violin
SKB Thermoplastic sculpted case
$619 (MSRP); beckerinstruments.com
“It has that open sound that I like,” was Kammen’s first reaction. Tolling was less impressed. Price thought the sound was a good value for the money, though he found the dark satin finish less visually appealing. These Romanian-made student outfits, which typically populate dealer rental pools, come in a rugged Thermoplastic case that will endure years of abuse.
Yuan Qin 850 WFB violin
Klaus Mueller pernambuco bow
Regency superlight oblong pressurized-foam case
$699 (MSRP); swstrings.com
“This is better,” said Tolling, playing a long time. “Not bad!” The intermediate-level Yuan Qin has a more classic appearance with better scroll carving and varnish that showed off the wood. The outfit includes a pernambuco bow with a good frog, but sounds much better with the CodaBow Diamond NX , available as an upgrade for an additional $225.
Cremona SV-1340 violin (one-piece back)
LaSalle brazilwood bow
Travelite deluxe oblong foam case
$850 (MSRP); sagamusic.com
The high-gloss Cremona outfit comes
with choice of two-piece back or, for
$100 more, one-piece back. Since one piece is no better or worse than two, choose whichever violin sounds best to you. Price found the sound powerful but boxy, too focused on the lower strings. Kammen characterized the included bow as “not bad,” though she recommended upgrading the bow and strings.
J. Remy pernambuco bow
Embassy oblong foam case
$947.80 (MSRP); usbandsupplies.com
According to Knilling, this satin-finished, Romanian-made “deluxe beginner’s model” is built to develop
its tone quality over time. Right out of the box, the sound is even and clear, if slightly muffled. Tolling and Price thought this instrument’s particular tone would appeal to jazz or bluegrass fiddlers. This instrument is equipped with Perfection Planetary geared pegs for easy tuning.
H8-V 4/4 violin
A.S. Carbon carbon-fiber bow Shaped wooden case
$1,125 (MSRP); hofner.com
This forgiving instrument is made in Germany of slightly flamed maple with shaded, natural-resin varnish. The sound is simple, but it’s easy to play. The well-made shaped wooden case should last for years, but you may consider upgrading the carbon-fiber bow.
D. Potter woven carbon-fiber bow
Highlander wooden oblong case
$1,150 (MSRP); pottersviolins.com
The panel found the tone covered and boxy, but sweet, too. “Attractive if you like that kind of thing, but not as open,” Price said. The violin sported a professional setup with a good bridge and attention to detail. The included bow is good, but the Caprice sounds much clearer with a better bow. Comes with a handsome English-style case.
William Harris Lee
F. Reiner violin
CodaBow Diamond NX woven carbon-fiber bow
Harmony Deluxe oblong wooden case
$1,704 (MSRP); whlee.com
Extra attention to detail—especially the shape of the neck, fingerboard, and bridge—marks a big step up in quality and makes this instrument comfortable to play. Our panel found the projected sound of this instrument a bit boxy, but Price said, “That’s surprising because it’s very rich under the ear.” Our musicians appreciated the high-quality bow.
Shar Violin Shop
Lamberti Master Series Guarneri-style violin
Becker pernambuco bow
Heritage IV oblong case
$1,899 (MSRP); sharmusic.com
Our panel enjoyed this sweet-sounding, well-balanced instrument, though it wasn’t the most powerful at a distance. “Very clean, easy to play,” remarked Kammen, who appreciated its open tone. She found the bow felt a little light: “Another bow might make a bigger sound.” Price said he wouldn’t mind having this fiddle for a spare instrument.
Eastman Strings Lupot
VL501 Jean-Pierre Lupot violin
Cadenza 1 Star woven carbon-fiber bow
FG oblong fiberglass case (moon-blue)
$1,900 (MSRP); eastmanstrings.com
“It looks nice. Sounds OK,” Price said. The instrument, part of a series available only in violin shops, sported a dark finish with heavy antiquing. It was set up with a good-quality bridge and strings and produced an even tone. The Cadenza bow was strong, nimble, and fun to play. But the piece de resistance was the cool-looking moon-blue case.
Seman Violins, Chicago violin
Pernambuco bow or CodaBow Prodigy
BAM Classic III sail-shaped foam case
$1,992 (MSRP); semanviolins.com
“We cut a new soundpost, a new bridge, we dress the fingerboard, select the right strings, and address any other issues,” said Noah Scott of Seman’s, where all of the workshop staff are Chicago School of Violin Making graduates. The effort resulted in universal praise from the panel. “Warm, thick sound,” said Tolling. “The E string is gorgeous, so mellow.” Keep the included bow for a spare or substitute the CodaBow.
CA 850 violin
CP05M condensed-foam and plywood oblong case
$1,950 (MSRP); angelsstrings.com
The color and shading of the varnish give this instrument an attractive appearance. Rather than the more common Strad and Guarneri models, this violin has a narrow waist and high arching characteristic of the older Stainer style. The violin was set up with good strings and a top-grade Aubert de luxe bridge. Plan on upgrading the bow.
AV10-SGE acoustic-electric violin
Foam and plywood oblong case
$1,995 (MSRP); yamaha.com
Yamaha’s intermediate outfit ships with a bridge pickup for those looking to plug in. The panel liked the open, singing sound, though they found it on the quiet side. “It’s not a violinist’s sound,” Kammen said. Tolling agreed, but pointed out that with the pickup it would work well for jazz and other alternative styles. The included bow looks good and plays well.
Johnson String Instruments purple pernambuco bow
Bobelock oblong wooden case
$2,000 (MSRP); johnsonstring.com
This instrument, with its professional setup and good looks, produces plenty of sound under the ear. But as listeners, the panel was uncertain. “Hard for me to get a feel for it,” said Tolling, who did find it very comfortable to play. The outfit included a handsome bow made of a wood that Johnson’s calls “purple pernambuco.”
Jay Haide 104 violin
Jay Haide pernambuco bow
Bobelock wooden oblong case
$2,000 (MSRP); ifshinviolins.com
“It has personality and character. Not a student sound, for me, definitely a higher-level instrument,” Tolling said. Price appreciated the Evah Pirazzi strings and Kammen was satisfied with the pure, clean high notes. The sound was even, with dynamic flexibility. The included bow scored well, too, “But this violin actually kind of deserves a better bow,” said Price, thoughtfully.
STV 880 Stradivari “Soil” copy violin
STB301 pernambuco bow
Oblong deluxe case
$2,000 (MSRP); scottcaoviolins.com
This advanced-level Stradivari “Soil” model is from Cao’s series of replicas of famous violins. “The sound is cleaner, more flexible. Good, solid E string,” Tolling said. “It’s got the open sound that I like. You don’t hear that surface noise,” added Kammen, listening at a distance. The bow, she said, is powerful: “It’s a nice bow, actually!” A professional setup and tasteful, shaded varnish complete this impressive outfit.
Y. Chen Z-2000 violin
Sisson nickel-mounted pernambuco bow
Caprice foam and plywood oblong case
$2,000 (MSRP); clevelandviolins.com
The panel was impressed with the sound of this outfit. “I feel this would be a good instrument for someone going to college,” Kammen said. “It has personality and warmth, everything you want.” The heavy antiquing, Tolling pointed out, “is a thing of the times. But that’s the thing: this passes for a more valuable violin.” As for the bow? Price noted, “I didn’t notice it at all. That’s good!”
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