Audiophiles are not alone

In the current (May 13th-19th, 2017) edition of the Economist there is a short piece entitled "Violins" that I want to bring to your attention.  It is about new violins and old violins, specifically Cremonese (Guarneri, Stradivari, Amati) vs. Joseph Curtin (modern violin maker in Michigan).  With Dr. Claudia Fritz of the University of Paris, presiding, experiments were held in Paris and New York that proved to the majority of both musicians and listeners (other musicians, critics, composers etc.) that new fiddles out performed old ones.  There were some sort of goggles used so that the players could not tell what instrument they were playing.  The audience was also prevented from seeing the instruments somehow.  All this done without inhibiting sound transmission.  Both solo and orchestrated works were performed.  You can read the whole story in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  And this is only the latest evidence of this apparent reality, as according to the article, similar experiments have reached similar conclusions prior to this.  The article concluded with the observation that these results notwithstanding, world class players are not about to give up their preference for their Cremonese fiddles.

This reminds me very much of some of our dilemmas and debates such as the ever popular: analog vs. digital, tube vs. transistor, and subjective listening vs. measured performance parameters.  If it has taken a couple of hundred years and counting for the debate on fiddles to remain unresolved, what hope have we to ever reach resolutions to some of our most cherished and strongly held preferences?  This is asked while hugging my turntables and tube electronics.
Similar comparisons have been conducted in the past with the same results.  "Some" strads are supposed to be outstanding musical examples while others are not and appear to be quite average.  There is a documentary about Steinway concert grands where a particular instrument shown being constructed turns out to be utterly amazing-sounding and many musicians try to get it shipped to wherever they are performing a concert.  No one can say why "that exact sample" sounded
so wonderful.  Lutherie is a bit different from electronic designs to compare the two disciplines.  I personally like both tubes/SS/records/cd's as long as they're all done well with dedication to the end result.  But it is kinda funny to see a 2million dollar price tag attached to an ancient violin that isn't all that satisfying to make music on.
And your tubes and vinyl will allow you to hear what the violins sound like.  One is absolutely subjective.  The other should reproduce which subjective violin you chose.

The feel of the instrument to the musician is what counts, and all that matters.
There is absolutely no question about variations instrument to instrument, particularly for percussion instruments like pianos or even simple cymbals.   Two brothers, last name Zildjian, both keepers of their family's great secret formula for the world famous Turkish cymbals, split over how the alloy should be hammered.  One brother insisting on hand hammering as has been done for hundreds of years, the other insisting on switching to machine hammering.  Now there are two companies, Zildjian and Sabian, both making similar world class cymbals and apparently the two brothers do not get along.  And still no two cymbals sound alike.  Something as simple as a cymbal.  And cymbals are to pianos as a sand filled glass timer is to a fine Swiss watch.   No wonder pianos all have unique sound characteristics.  And there is no rational reason for it, but a good Steinway is hard to find. 
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This kind of test proves very little other than the fact that, yes, there are good modern instruments being crafted today.  Are they as good as the Cremonese instruments?  Wolf Garcia has it exactly right; it is the feel of the instrument to a particular player that matters.  This merits some expounding as there is a lot more to "feel" than may be obvious:

Every player looks for different traits in an instrument's response characteristics ("feel").  Some players like a very responsive (fast) instrument, while another player may prefer an instrument that needs to be coaxed to some degree for it to respond.  It is a very personal thing and a kind of relationship between the player and the instrument.  As a general rule modern instruments (not just violins) tend to be more responsive than vintage ones and this goes to the appeal of the Cremonese instruments.  The Cremonese may need some extra coaxing to respond, but the reward can be layers of harmonic complexity and color that many players feel cannot be found in many modern instruments.  The most important aspect of "feel" is what some payers call the "sweet spot".  The sweet spot is the "spot" at which the instrument's inherent "requirements" come together (hopefully) with a player's individual technique characteristics (and this includes the player's actual physical traits) to let the instrument fully express its potential.  When this happens is when the player can, in turn, fully express musicality.  Importantly, and the reason that these tests are pretty pointless, is that finding that "sweet spot" does not happen in minutes or even hours.  A player needs to live with an instrument for some time in order to understand it and how that particular instrument's personality meshes with his/her own technique and expectations.

billstenson, I feel your passion regarding the phono/glass.

I extend my arms a little more to include my beloved tube FM tuner.

"Accurracy" or "realistic" debate is like discussing religion.
I stand somewhere between the dividing line, leaning towards 
inaccurate,noisey,hot vaccum tubes.

Note that the study published in the Economist is a report of the subjective judgement of listeners.  For a brief moment, I thought Bill was going to tell us that some actual measurements were made.
From the title of this thread, I thought before opening it that the OP discovered musicians or audiophiles from outer space.
In some circles musicians and audiophiles ARE thought to be from outer space 😄
Dear @lewm : What kind of measurements are you waiting for?

Example: wat kind of measurements can help to tell somebody why he dislike Celine Dion singer?

Maybe you have some singer or whatever kind of music or one specific composition you dislike. Have you measurements to explain it?

What am I missing from your post?

Regards and enjoy the MUSIC and not DISTORTIONS,
Dear @frogman : """  This kind of test proves very little other than the fact that, yes, there are good modern instruments being crafted today. """

I think that proves more than that because some of those new instruments outperforms the old very well regarded ones.

the reason that these tests are pretty pointless, is that finding that "sweet spot" does not happen in minutes or even hours    """

why pointless?, the tests goes in both directions: new ones and old ones and in exactly the same enviroment with no advantage to either instrument.

In the other side a more in deep test, this is more time is not possible to do it because the tests can takes over a year and impossible that over the time the players moods stay the same.

As a fact the tester leaders ask to the first rate soloist how much time they think will need it and they coincided that 50 minutes. The tests took two 75 minutes sessions.

Here are some high ligths about:

""" Significance

Some studies open new fields for investigation; this study attempts to close a perennially fruitless one—the search for the “secrets of Stradivari.” Great efforts have been made to explain why instruments by Stradivari and other Old Italian makers sound better than high-quality new violins, but without providing scientific evidence that this is in fact the case. Doing so requires that experienced violinists demonstrate (under double-blind conditions) both a general preference for Old Italian violins and the ability to reliably distinguish them from new ones. The current study, the second of its kind, again shows that first-rate soloists tend to prefer new instruments and are unable to distinguish old from new at better than chance levels.


Many researchers have sought explanations for the purported tonal superiority of Old Italian violins by investigating varnish and wood properties, plate tuning systems, and the spectral balance of the radiated sound. Nevertheless, the fundamental premise of tonal superiority has been investigated scientifically only once very recently, and results showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old. The study was, however, relatively small in terms of the number of violins tested (six), the time allotted to each player (an hour), and the size of the test space (a hotel room). In this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two 75-min sessions—the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, 6 of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument. A single new violin was easily the most-preferred of the 12. On average, soloists rated their favorite new violins more highly than their favorite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels. These results confirm and extend those of the earlier study and present a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about Old Italian violins.   """

Those result over more than one study are really interesting and maybe unexpected. The facts are there, any other conclusions from our part is a theoretical and pointless because you was not one of those players and never pass through thse tests.

Of course no one likes that a 2KK dolar instrument suddenly was outperformed for a " penautus " instrument and if I'm the owner of that 2KK instrument I can't accept the results of those tests. The proud feelings that has a Stradivarius owner does not counts in those tests and has no value at all.

Regards and enjoy the MUSIC not DISTORTIONS,


The ONLY science that matters in music is neuroscience .
Every human is an unique organic being who hears what they hear not a piece of wood .
If you can’t hear what a Strad really is ,an act of love made by a lover to serve the love supreme,
it’s not due to what you "hear" .
And the fact you happen to be a musician has no bearing on the matter .
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Just curious, wouldn't being subjected to the full power of the orchestra over time be kind of bad for ones hearing? Maybe musicians wear earplugs, who knows. The other possibility is there's something wrong with the test itself. Who knows?

Going to rock concerts is, eye, ear and throat is a good way to get rich as a doc .
Good to know. Too bad classical music cannot attain high sound pressure levels.

In my world this is more analogous to a Gibson Les Paul vs. Fender Stratocaster. Duane Allman played the Les Paul and David Gilmore a Fender Strat. Which do I like more? I guess it depends on my mood I suppose. I don’t think either instrument can be declared "better" and I challenge anyone to choose between the two.
I think the trouble here, with all due respect, is that there is no real connection between the sound of a violin and its market value. So there won't be any collectors or foundation heads who read this article and start regretting their purchase of an old Strad. Violins are valued in the market as art objects, which means that their price is determined mainly by their provenance. And this is not just with super-expensive violins. If you try a series of 5k instruments you'll find that some are terrible and some are great. A $10k fiddle might come from a well known 19th century maker but sound nowhere near as good as a $1k chinese model.  Annoying but true.

Which leads me to another contrarian point: audiophiles actually have it better than violinists. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for in the audio world. Yes of course there are exceptions like overpriced tweaks that don't really work or 'giant killer' components that sound better than they should. But in general, whether it's SS or tubes, analog or digital, spending more money gets you a better sounding system. IMHO. 

In a society that worships money there are connections to everything's market value and none to anything's real value .

Whether Strads have higher or lower value better or worse sound to the modern violins to hold their value (market or real) they all need to be played by musicians REGULARLY either for practice or performance!  Lots of parts of violin designed to be moving and not sitting, therefore without usage the instrument can vanish...

I find a certain irony in the idea that some audiophiles who accept the fact that sometimes classic gear and "antiquated" music storage media have (for quantifiable and unquantifiable reasons) special and desirable sonic qualities....the magic, should be so disbelieving of the idea that an old rare violin can be found to have, by a given player, special qualities that elude modern instruments. We are all also familiar with the futility of the infamous double-blind tests of gear.

Raul, with respect, I will say it again:

**** This kind of test proves very little other than the fact that, yes, there are good modern instruments being crafted today. ****

This type of test has been done many times previously in an attempt to debunk the idea that many players find unique and very desirable qualities in the old Italian instruments. Aside from the built-in bias that is often present in these tests and in the reporting of the methadology and results there are other issues that are often not reported. One example: valuable Cremonese instruments which are loaned by collectors (or players) for conducting these tests almost without exception are loaned with certain preconditions. Specifically, they are not to be altered in any way. Bridges cannot be adjusted, strings cannot be changed; iow, they cannot be optimized. The ramifications of this should be obvious. As I pointed out previously, a player needs to live with an instrument for a substantial amount of time, not just minutes or an hour, in order to understand the instrument. The fact that it is not "practical" to perform these tests over extended periods of time does not invalidate the relevance of this reality. Moreover, a player’s "mood" has absolutely nothing to do with any of this. A world class player has developed a very keen sense of what qualities he is looking for in an instrument and his "mood" will not sway this in any way. Additionally, a musical instrument is not like a piece of audio equipment that, as you say, "performs" better than another. It may be better for one player and not for another depending on what qualities that player is looking for. Additionally, it needs to be taken into consideration whether the player is a soloist, chamber musician or orchestral player; they each have different requirements of an instrument and will look for different qualities in the instrument.

There is no doubt that there are very fine instruments being made today, but the idea that many world class players choose to play and incur the expense of an old Cremonese instrument simply because of its cache or status symbol value is absurd. A world-class player seeks an instrument that will allow him to fully express himself musically. He wants the instrument that is best for him, period; whether it’s new or old. The fact still remains that some players find unique qualities in some of these old instruments that they can’t find in modern instruments and are willling to pay whatever is necessary for that last bit of potential in musical expression.

I have spoken to musician colleagues (string players) about this issue and they agree with the above practically without exception. Some of these old instruments simply have "the magic". Some of these players are members of an East Coast symphony orchestra that I play with regularly and that gained a lot of attention and notoriety a few years ago for, besides being a fine orchestra, buying a collection of 30 (!) rare string instruments including 12 (!) Stradivari. The difference in the sound of the string section as a result of having these instruments in the section was very obvious both in beauty of tone and musical vitality. A result of "pride of ownership" only? I seriously doubt it.

Sent from my iPad
+1 to the Frogman's post.  Having been involved as a trustee (and audience member) for years with that orchestra he's referring to, and having also been intimately involved with the financing and leasing of one of these instruments for a prominent US concert violinist and having spoken with him on numerous occasions as to what about the instrument made it different to him and worth going after, I can attest to everything Frogman is saying, and there is little that I could add to it. 
I suppose there is no answer as to why these wonderful old instruments are preferred, but I have read that some think that the passage of time somehow imbues these pieces with that something extra.  Or maybe the design or craftsmanship is superior?
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Abnerjack, you really need to work on your reading comprehension. The whole point of the discussion is the older instruments are NOT preferred, at least in tests with trained musicians. Hel-loo! Note to self: Why hasn’t anyone mentioned expectation bias?


Read posts from frogman and rcprince.  Get back to me if you don't understand.
As Shakespeare said in Hamlet , "There are more things in heaven and earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy" .

Studies like this are conducted by people who think we can know everything, we can’t . Some things are just a mystery and that’s that and is as it should be .
Shakespeare, kick in the rear. I'm a poet and don't know it.
My feet show it, they're Longfellows.
"Audiophiles are not alone"

Agreed, which is to say that obsessive compulsive behavior and dissecting differences often misses the point to folks that might stare in wonderment as to "why can't they just see the forest and enjoy it for what it is? Oh that's right, too many trees in the way, just another perspective but not from those that truly appreciate and discern what makes something truly special, if not for everyone at least for them.  Great post Frogman, as always.

So recently I walked into a violin shop in downtown Boston, just as the proprietor was playing a violin. The instrument belonged to a customer and I couldn't help but notice that the sound was unusually powerful, as if there was a freight train moving towards me from across the room. I didn't even notice it at first - the feeling hit me unconsciously and then gradually worked its way into my (sometimes dim) awareness. 

I poked around the shop for a while as the proprietor talked about violin strings with his customer, and then I went outside to feed the parking meter. When I came back in the owner and the violin were gone. I said to the proprietor, "that was a nice violin you were playing." He gave me an impish grin and said, "Guarneri." 

For what it's worth, I heard that violin with a completely blank slate, no expectations whatsoever. I won't say that it's impossible for a modern violin to approach that sound (I doubt that's true) but I will say that the sound of that violin was unlike anything I've heard before or since. And I've heard a lot of fiddles....  

Schubert, don't be such an old fuddy duddy. Liquor is quicker. Pot is not. Look within. 😛
Almost everything recorded by Heifetz was played with a Guarneri. Anyone can hear what a Guarneri sounds like, but IMHO you’ll be much more likely to hear how that violin really sounds on vinyl or tape.

I was in a small hall in a small town in Wisconsin listening to a fine touring trio "Trio Copenhagen" playing the Ravel.
I was no more than 20 feet away from the violinist , one of the Korean wonders , and her sound overwhelmed me and I do mean overwhelmed me, as in I was shaking . And I’ve been to a lot of concerts .
Had a little meet and greet after and I asked her what kind of violin do you have? She was obviously tired from the tour and she said just one word , Guarneri .
I believe the Creator blew his breath upon that instrument .

To respond to Raul's challenge way up this thread, after my post stating that the article in the Economist is based on subjective judgement, not "scientific" proof. Raul, I didn't "expect" anything; I was merely pointing out the fact that the article recounts a group experience that produced opinions, not hard data.  I don't at all deny the possibility that the best new violins may sound "better", to a room full of expert listeners, than a Strad.  Also, many expert players and listeners remark about how different one violin can sound from another, even two violins made by Stradivarius.

Isn't it possible that after centuries have gone by the Strads and the Guarneris are growing more different from one another, because of differential effects of aging and environmental effects?  Whereas brand new violins, the best ones, may sound much more alike if from the same maker, because their characteristics have had less time to diverge. Thus it would not so much matter if one compares any Strad to a top quality new instrument, but it matters more to compare a known "great" Strad (or Guarneri) to a top quality new instrument.  By the way, I have never heard any other violin sound like any violin played by Heifetz.
Dear @frogman : """  tests and in the reporting of the methadology and results there are other issues that are often not reported.... """

other that the players that were in all those tests no one can say what you posted. You are only assuming that with out any single prove other that your words that for me in this case has a little minor level that the ones coming from the players/soloists.

For your post is clear you are " biased " through what you name " magic ".

Results says other things and NO a kind of tests like this can't be takes months or weeks to do it because is a double-blind test where those players just do not know which violin are playing. Even the tests were with ligth at very low shine effect to impede identification.

I respect your opinion but mine is diferent, You say that " mood " moment in a player does not affects the player performance, well that's what you said where I think that some way or the other it affects. You can't prove your opinion only because you are a violin player. No, I can't prove my opinion neither.

There are other similar tests in that site and I choose this one because in my opinion was the more complete that under the tests scenario conditions exist no " magic " but preference for the new instruments with no-biased soloists/players.

Have you many doubts about?, ask them through the tests leaders. These people seems/look to me are non-biased through the new or old instruments. Why should them be that way? and I'm refering to the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Regards and enjoy the MUSIC NOT DISTORTIONS,

@lewm : hard data?  which one are you looking for?, come  on.
Schubert, the Guarneri del Jesu that I did the deal on had previously been owned by a man who sold it to a dealer because it had too big a sound for the string quartet in which he played--he needed an instrument that would blend better with those of his compatriots.  I had a similar experience hearing Sarah Chang play the Bach concerto for two violins with a smaller local orchestra, her violin (also a Guarneri del Jesu) made the concertmaster's (the other soloist) violin sound weak and anemic in comparison, though it too was a fine instrument.
rcprince, I have heard that more than once.
In my case the other players were not drowned out at all, her husband, a Dane, played a fine Steinway, her sister, the the cello player and another Korean tiger, had a great sound as well. I think I was just closer to the violinist .
It must be something in the water in Korea , we have 3-4 Korean players
in our world-class St. Paul CO and they are beyond good.
Gil the Great played the Mendelssohn here and as soon as it ended he made a bee-line straight to the Korean violist and shook her hand like crazy .

I did have a similar thing happen a few years ago down in Rochester(MN) with local talent playing Brahms .
All the Quartet players were up to it but the cello played has such a fine instrument it made the whole very hard to listen to . Talked to her for a minute after, didn't ask about the instrument. but learned she was a Eastman grad, turned Doc at Mayo .

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Raul, I am not a violinist; but, that is not important.  What is important is that, from my vantage point, you seem to be choosing to argue points that are not really the key points here.  No time right now to address some of your retorts, and frankly I'm not sure that it would be productive to do so.  In the meantime, and the reason that I wonder if it would be productive is, for starters. that there is such a wide gap in our respective understanding of what "the magic" means IN THIS CONTEXT.  Regards.
Dear @frogman : Kewy points here?, well please enligth me because if not then we are talking of different issues and then unproductive.

Regards and enjoy the MUSIC not DISTORTIONS,
It seems to me that anyone who claims that a violin is worth millions because of its superior sound should be able to identify it with a blindfold (or goggles) on.  I just don't understand the absolute resistance to blind tests.  It seriously weakens their case.
If you don’t understand you don’t understand . Simple as that .
Nobody understands everything .
Thank you rcprince and frogman. You have explained why the so-called 'scientific' test was probably not, in fact, scientific.

Science is a method of knowing, and it requires not only a knowledge of scientific practice, but of the subject matter (in this case, violins and violinists and institutional owners of violins).

And just like this research appears to be pseudo-science, the OP refers to another pet peeve, digital audio, which is often justified with pseudo-mathematics. For example, to see that the Shannon Information Theorem does not actually apply to digital media, one has only to read that theorem. (Hint: inspect the premises.)
....pseudo-science, the OP refers to another pet peeve, digital audio, which is often justified with pseudo-mathematics. For example, to see that the Shannon Information Theorem does not actually apply to digital media, one has only to read that theorem. (Hint: inspect the premises.)

Whoa! Back up! Beep, beep! Shannon's Theorem? When was that ever used to justify digital audio? Why would you think it needs to be justified?
1. Shannon's Theorem, or Nyqvist Done Right.

2. Always used.

3. An engineering solution should have some basis in fact or theory. Shannon is digital audio's.