How do I smooth out violins?


I have a decent system (bit of a mixed bag) but know that I can achieve a smoother, more integrated, and more relaxed massed violin sound. I listen to a ton of orchestral music and notice that massed violins in their upper registers (1500-3500 Hz) often jump out from the mix and sound a bit harsh, unlike what one hears live. Right now, I have the following:

Spendor SP1/2E
McCormick DNA-125 (original)
NAD 1600 (pre/tuner)
Marantz CD3000
Audioquest Sidewinder ICs
Audioquest Type 4

Would a tube pre help (maybe a AA M3A)? I'm thinking that the NAD may be the culprit. Any advice from those of you who have quested for "real" violin sound is very much appreciated.
bojack
I have never heard your speakers, but this sounds to me like a speaker issue. Your speakers cross over from midrange to tweeter at 3 KHz. Its possible that your tweeters beam more than your midrange which would tend to make the upper frequencies stand out more. I have also heard harshness in some speakers at the cross over point. If you have a test disk that plays warble tones at various frequencies, it may be easier to diagnose if this is due to a tweeter beaming than with music playing. Just go back and forth between the frequencies above and below the crossover point and see if you notice a lack of coherence, that is, an obvious shift of sound from the midrange to the tweeter. My Magnepan 1.6QRs used to do a similar thing in the violin range where the violins would jump from the planar magnetic panels to the quasi ribbons. That lack of coherence drove me nuts.
Real 'live' violin sound is hard to hear listening to recordings, either massed or solo. To some degree you can simply charge this off to recording techniques, i.e. microphone placement. You usually are quite some distance from a violin when you hear it live, not so much with a recording where the mic is usually very near. Afar you do not get the highlighted upper mid range you often hear in recordings.

That said, many folks find tubed units can be helplful if for no reason other than tubes can have a more fluid sound. But violins can sound bright and etched using tubed units if you are not careful in tube selection, not a small chore in tuning you system. A 'warm' toned pre-amp will help, or if you go for an integrated, get one with an actual pre-amp with dedicated tubes, not just a passive pre and tubed power section which is very common, unfortunately.

Good luck. Oh, FWIW, I doubt that you will find the AAM3A a solution for your problem. Personally I'd get a tubed integrated as apposed to getting a tubed pre to match with a solid state amp. But thats just me. :-)
Try a power conditioner. the main positive from most conditioners is impovement in the upper frequencies.
Then buy some used original Cardas interconnects for the Cd player to preamp. they are warmer and 'softer' sounding.
Or stick some ferrite claps on you current IC. Audio Quest made some larger ones which would fit your interconnects. Just on the wires from the Cd player...
Bojack,

As you can see from the responses you are getting, opinions will vary greatly. That's to be expected since all we can do provide your with out best guesses. The only component I've owned that you have are is amp. I don't think your amp is the problem, although the high frequencies can tend to a little on the bright side. I agree with you on looking at your preamp first. Theres no guarantees, of course, but I believe its the most sensible thing to look at first. I think its a mistake to only consider a tube preamp, though. My primary focus would be on getting a good preamp; tube or solid state. Just because a preamp is solid state, doesn't mean it won't work for you.
Maybe it's the CD, the recording itself, not the player. You should not attribute every aspect of your sound to a component in your system. Nothing will correct a poorly recorded LP or CD.
I think you're going to have to play around with substitutions a bit. Do you have any friends with gear, who would be willing to bring it over? I'd focus on the preamp and source (CDP). What about your room. Is it overly "live"? I'm assuming that you hear this affect on multiple recordings, so it's not just the recording.
Need tubes somewhere. Try a cj or quicksilver preamp or something similiar first.
... Massed violins in their upper registers (1500-3500 Hz) OFTEN [emphasis added] jump out from the mix and sound a bit harsh, unlike what one hears live.
As I read it the information provided does not exclude the possibility that it may be a recording issue, as Rok2id suggested.

Have you found this to occur with orchestral recordings that you know to have been recorded with "purist" microphone techniques (e.g., 2 or 3 well placed mics), and that you can say with confidence have been well engineered in other respects? Or have all of the recordings on which you have perceived this problem been heavily multi-mic'd, with the forest of microphones that are typically used for orchestral recordings released by many of the major labels?

Regards,
-- Al
I think the tube preamp is a good idea along with the cables and power conditioning measures that Elizabeth mentioned.
Mass string is very difficult to reproduce well with digital source. I suggest you start with the CD player. But if you want silky strings, I am afraid you might have to change over to vinyl. IMHO of course.
I will also support the idea of getting power conditioning and better power cords. After that I think you need better cables and CD player for classical music......
Good point to validate what the recording in question can sound like first Have you heard it sound better on a reference system somewhere?

Once you establish a reference sound, i would look at power conditioningon the preamp as a first attempt to better the sound. That can usually only help if done well. Then i would consider a good tube preamp next if still needed. I can recommnd the arc sp 16 or line stage only version for digital only. Your issue is one that i find the arc preamp addressed very cost effectively for me.
I find your question interesting in that I listen to classical music exclusively on a modest system. I too found the sound of violins too harsh.
I made two changes; I switched to a tube preamp using some great NOS tubes that rolled off the highs a bit, but still sound very open (RCA Blackplates). Strings were finally sounding very natural, and it was now easier to tell which cds were poor recordings.
I next got rid of the Audioquest Type 4 and switched to some Cardas spkr cables which sound more forgiving. The type 4 are very detailed and you might look for a more laid-back cable. It worked for my situation.
Many possible causes. Here's what I did. 1) Got rid of any power cables that had any silver. (2) plugged my digital components into a balanced power conditioner. Good luck with find your solution.
If you decide it's the speakers that are the problem I just might be tempted to take them off your hands. I would love to revisit the 1/2e's in my system.

Personally though I do not think the speakers are the culprit.
After reading your post and the responses, I listened to several CDs to see if I could hear anything similiar.

Beethoven Sym #9 1st movement
Bohm and the vienna Phil

Same piece but Karajan and the berliners SACD.

Julia Fischer Bach concertos with ASMF

The Fischer disc was a little fast, but the strings were easy on the ears. no complaints. Of course she was great.
The Bohm was GREAT. Very smooth. No irritation at all.
The Karajan sounded sort of harsh and strident.
Both of the Beethovens were recorded by DG.
The Bach by DECCA.

A lot of CDs are like this with big orchestras. I own a lot of them. Have not listened to them in years, once a I got a better performance and recording. Just a wall of sound that sort of grates on the ears.

I would advise you, as someone said, get a KNOWN well recorded violin heavy piece and listen. If you find it grating on your ears, then maybe you do have a gear peoblem. But remember, if your system will play at least ONE CD with mass violins to your satisfaction, then it will play ALL properly recorded CD the same way. If you modify your system to make BAD cds sound better, what will it make the GOOD cds sound like. Don't say, ' MO Better' :) Beethoven's 5&7 by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna is considered one of the best classical recordings. Try it.
The Philadelphia Orch with Ormandy was know for it's violin section. But that was on LP. I can't believe I just said that. :) Good Luck.

Cheers
Try listening to some Sonus Faber speakers if you can. Stringed instruments are their forte. The Cremona M's are extremely nice.
IMO, you should decide on one of two approaches to solving the problem: 1. tackle the problem in a way that will give you long-term satisfaction according to your tastes and priorities by intelligent system building, or 2. use band aids now to tame a specific problem that will "help" this specific problem, but inevitably take the positive possibilities of your system.
Huh, you say?

1. Realize that the problem you are describing is a common (but not necessarily a deal breaker) problem with digital recording AND playback. This gets better all the time with new technologies and refinements of old, but compared to the sound of live strings, you will probably have to accept less-than-perfect at a price level anywhere near what you are talking about. There are many really good digital orchestral recordings as Almarg recently reminded me. But, there are an awful lot that exhibit the problem you are describing, and it won't matter what equipment you use for playback. However, the CD player can aggravate the problem already on the recording. So, that's where I would start. I really like the Ah! Tjoeb (Marantz
based) CD players in the budget level. It uses a tube output stage and sound fantastic with orchestral music. Always remember: any problem that is created by the source component will be there all the way to the end of the chain. You can mask it, but you will also mask information that you do want.

2. You can mask the problem. Some good suggestions above with cables and tweaks. Personally, I don't recommend taking that route. Your speakers and amp are solid, the CD player and pre, less so IMO. Tackle the problem in a way that will make you happy long term.

My two cents. Good luck.
I agree with the advice of those who suggest addressing the recording it self.If you find it is`nt the recording then I would next approach the AC power quality(this can make a significant difference) and audition some very good conditioners.If that does`nt solve the problem only then would I proceed to improving the quality of the CD player(source) and the preamp.As has been said already, you need a good recording reference as the first step.
regards,
If you are not satisfied with the sound you most likely need to change a component. A tube preamp is a good place to start. The question is what tube preamp will mate well with your system? The Quicksilver full function preamp has extremely low output impedance and will match with any amplifier. This also makes it less sensitive to cables. Trying to find recordings that sound good with your system doesn't make sense. It will shrink your CD collection to a hand full of recordings that you will listen to over and over. A power conditioner at this point would be nothing more than a band-aid.
Always follow the signal when auditioning a substitute component. So,that said,start with your source and continue downstream. My gut feeling is your CD player and your preamp are the culprit. Don't rule out better power cords(VH Audio power cords are very good for the money)and power conditioning as mentioned earlier. Power is everything! ICs and speaker cables would be the last resort. Get your components right first. BTW, No affiliation with VH Audio.There are a ton of good power cords to try.
Looking what you have, I'm not surprised that violins sound edgy or bright. Some of your components are good quality (speakers and amplifier) but "oddly combined" like the McCormick amp and NAD preamp, while others more pedestrian like the 12 year old Marantz CD changer! With all do respect, violins and pianos will only sound natural when using higher quality source components. And to sound really good, the system should be carefully assembled through trial and error, selecting based on what you hear rather than what a reviewer says.

If you are serious about improving the sound, find a good audio dealer or two willing to loan you several pieces of equipment for home demo.... at the same time. Start with the source and amplification (pre & amp) first, leaving the speakers and cables as your "control". The Spendor "house sound" is definitely NOT bright and favors classical and acoustic instruments (I've owned two models), so keep the SP 1/2E. Integrated amplifiers have vastly improved in recent years, and are a good (preferred?) alternative to modest priced separate amp/pre-amplifer combinations from different companies. (It removes some of the uncertainty.)

On a personal note, last year I revamped my entire audio system after moving to a new house. It was a fair amount of work borrowing four high quality integrated amplifiers (Rega, Sim, Naim, etc) and speaker sets (Quad, Dynaudio, Totem, etc.). But the result is amazing... clearly the best, most natural sound system I've ever owned. And yes, the violins have body, warmth, and tone that sound very real. Same with piano and trumpets, too.
A number of good responses above, including your own regarding changing tubes. I have experienced some dramatic benefits from this in my system. As someone else hints at above, finding ways to lay back the sound is most desirable. I used to favor a more forward presentation, but the desire for a more relaxing, listenable sound changed that. A caveat, though, mirroring what someone else indicates above,is that some recordings of violin are too closely miked and/or poorly made, and as such might be immune to virtually any kinds of alterations in one's system. An example(at least in my experience)is David Oistrakh's performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Andre Cluytens on Angel. Also, in general, I have always found the blue label Angel classical recordings to be somewhat bright. Aside from Cardas, you also might want to consider one of the lower priced Purist Audio cables,e.g.Musaeus.
I think there are a lot of good comments above. I am especially appreciative and supportive of where frogman was going, in that you really want to diagnose and address the problem rather than throw bandaids at it. Who among us appreciates the auto mechanic who fixes our cars by sequentially replacing parts until the problem goes away?

When I read the OPs comments, I focused more on lack of integration than lack of smoothness. I think most of you focused on smoothness rather than integration. This is where the comment above that this may be due to more than one issue is also relevant. Further clarification from the OP is required with respect to what he means by "smoothness." Does this mean you are experiencing excessive grain or excessive brightness? If it is excessive grain, I strongly urge you to replace the aq4s. They are very grainy, but I did not find them overly bright. If the problem is brightness, then some of the comments regarding power treatment and IC's may well be relevant to this problem. If dirty power is exacerbating the problem, it will probably be variable. Most people have cleaner power in the evening than during the day. If the problem is not variable, you may not want to address power treatment first.

My guess remains that the "integration" (coherence) problem is speaker related. I have no knowledge of this speaker. If those who do can indicate that coherence is a strong point with this speaker, well, I guess the problem must lie elsewhere. I can tell you this. I had major issues with integration (lack of coherence) and also a minor issue with stridency or harshness in reproduction of violins (at the crossover frequency) that pretty much completely went away when I went from Magnepan 1.6QRs to 3.7Rs. I have an extensive library of orchestral and chamber music, and I would have to go back to cds recorded in the early 80's to find examples of recordings where the violins are excessively bright. Granted, certain recordings can make a violin sound larger than life due to close miking, which I suppose could be a part of the problem here. But I find it difficult to believe that the OP has somehow managed to selectively collect a large number of bad recordings.
I do have a tubed CD player, but I do not have a tubed pre amp. I have nothing against tubed preamps, but they are not a panacea, nor is vinyl. Digital can get this right, and will not require investing in a top notch vinyl rig and phono preamp. Resorting to vinyl is not really a viable option for those who have a substantial investment in CD's, and I would suggest most fans of classical would not be satisfied with the quantity of music that is available on vinyl as compared to digital.
One other possible issue here is jitter. I don't know the Marantz, but in my experience jitter will for some reason manifest itself as most objectionable with music that is rich in high frequencies.
"Trying to find recordings that sound good with your system does`nt make sense". It makes plenty of sense.How can you judge the sound quality and characteristics of your system without using a known recording to evaluate its reproduction and possible deviations?

Improving the quality of AC power is`nt a "band aid" but is fundamental and all components benefit from better electricity quality.Immediately jumping in and changing compenets is`nt addressing the root cause. A good recording of massed strings needs to be listened to in order to determine if the problem is simply source material(bad recording causing the harshness) or a component it self.
Regards,
Correct....it's mostly the preamp. A Manley Shrimp or Jumbo would definitively help. Love the Spendors and McCormick, Marantz could be better, AQ Type 4 is a bit thin, AQ Type 6 is warmer. Signal Cable is really good stuff for the money.
Second Rrog. When getting the sound right for my main 2 channel system, I focus on strings and vocals and had in the past -for a short time- the Spendor SP1A mated with a CJ PV12AL and MF2300A combo. Not sure how much different the SP1/2E sound but upgrading the pre to a (better) tube will certainly help. Power conditioning, fuses and better power cords comes next to make the ensemble sound more musical.
Second Rrog. When getting the sound right for my main 2 channel system, I focus on strings and vocals and had in the past -for a short time- the Spendor SP1 mated with a CJ PV12AL and MF2300A combo. Not sure how much different the SP1/2E sound but upgrading the pre to a (better) tube will certainly help. Power conditioning, fuses and better power cords comes next to make the ensemble sound more musical.
I second Frogman's very well put comments, as well as the recording-related comments by Rok2id, Mapman, Charles1dad, and Opus88.

If you don't feel certain at this point as to the degree to which the problem may be the result of deficiencies in the recordings, such as heavy multi-miking and excessive processing, my suggestion is that you can resolve all doubt by investing in a copy of Chesky CD31, featuring Dvorak's "New World Symphony," Jascha Horenstein conducting the Royal Philharmonic.

It is unfortunately out of print, but is available from various sellers at highish prices. It is the best sounding CD of a symphony I have ever heard (although most of the orchestral recordings in my collection are on vinyl), notwithstanding the fact that it was recorded in 1962. Great music and a fabulous performance as well!

Regards,
-- Al
Try the Millennium Carbon Fiber CD mat. Really helps to smooth out upper frequencies and improve overall performance.
Power conditioning is a practical first step to consider because if done right, ie a reputable product with ample power/current delivery for the task at hand, like Furman line for example, the result is usually always positive regardless of systems sonic "flavor". It is fundamental in that sense and sets a good foundation for the rest. Other changes will affect the sound in various ways that might be deemed positive or negative, depending on user's tastes. Cleaner power pretty much is always a good thing! I would use a conditioner with the pre-amp and all digital source components (players, DACS, etc.), but not on power amp to start. Power amps consume more power and current and require beefier and more expensive power conditioning for effects to be assured as positive.
Power conditioning on the front end will indeed make a big improvement in this area. I have tried many and always come back to a BPT balanced power unit. I am continually amazed on how much the BPT improves the music in my room.

Great on a digital front end. Removes glare, noise, sizzle in the upper frequencies, separates out the instruments in their space ....etc

I use a BPT 3.5 Signature. I cannot overstate the impact. Mixed bag on amps, but a must on a digital front end and preamp.
Get better equipment or roll off the highs.
Put some DNM reson speaker cable in place of AQ4, will probaly do it for under 200 bucks.
Bojack - I agree with your thoughts that the NAD pre-amp may be the cuplrit (it is only a guess). I have owned and enjoyed NAD gear, but to me it can be a bit harsh at times. It is worth a try to substitute a different pre-amp if you have the opportunity.
Some very good suggestions and I agree that you should have a reference CD. That said, when I mentioned earlier that I changed my cables, it was the final step to my system.
I agree with those who say start at the source which is your CDP and next the preamp. I also agree that all systems need power conditioning or filtering (I use a Furman), but I think you can find the cause of the harsh highs before heading down that path.
Charles1dad, I disagree with almost everything in your recent post. Take another look at the system in question.

What if only one recording sounds good with a given system? Shoukd you only listen to one recording or do you want to enjoy your music collection?

If there is a need for a line conditioner I am all for it, but not everybody needs one. Also, if the system is not well assembled a power line conditioner is infact a band-aid. Once again take another look at the system in question. Does this look like a well matched system to you or do you see room for improvement?

Your approach of only listening to "Audiophile Approved" recordings and wasting money on a line conditioner is very bad advice.
I can sympathize since I, too, have noticed that digital can be cruel to high strings. A good deal of this problem can be atributed to early digital recording techniques. I never buy a classical CD recorded earlier than the mid to late 1990's. Telarc has a long digital recording history. One can easily hear the improvement in string high sound from the mid '90's on.

Surprisingly, the addition of Bryston SST2 amplification into my system improved the sound of classical CD's greatly. James Tanner of Bryston informed me that this can be credited to new, improved transiters in the current models.

My recommendation is to buy some very recently recorded classical CD's and see if there is any improvement. The European labels (Audite, Praga, etc.)are producing some very good sounding classical music. You can sample some from the Berkshire Record Outlet at quite reasonable prices.

You might want to stay away from Sony. Too many great performances have lousy upper string sound on that label. Poor Hilary Hahn. I have heard her perform live three times. Her harsh Sony CD string sound is nothing like the beautiful tone of her live performances.

Lastly, SACD can produce a considerable improvement in high string sound over Red Book CD's. An audition might be an eye (ear?) opener.

I hope this offers some help. Good luck.
Pity the pour soul who asked for advice. So far we have:
It might be the speakers and its probably not the speakers.
Buy a tubed preamp and it is not necessary to have a tubed preamp to tame digititis.
Purchase new speaker cables, ICs, power cords and power treatment.
All your recordings are bad, go vinyl.
Start by replacing the source.

I'm sure at this point he is clear on how to proceed. I guess he is fortunate, in that he gets to keep his amp (so far), and no one has invoked demon possession as the only reasonable explanation.

What would be helpful would be comments relating direct experience with the actual components in question, or diagnostic approaches that would allow him to narrow down the field without running megabuck experiments.

I think a reference recording, recommended by the group as being innocent of the offending attributes has a great deal of value. If Charles1dad has a recording of violins that exhibits good coherence, lack of grain, and lack of excessive brightness in his system, and the OP finds the recording still has issues in his system, then it is system related and not an inherent fault of digital reproduction. If, on the other hand, this recording is found by the OP to be satisfactory, then he is going to have to live with the fact that he has somehow selected a bunch of bad recordings. The idea is to help the poor fellow narrow things down without running a series of megabuck experiments.
01-04-13: Brownsfan
I think a reference recording, recommended by the group as being innocent of the offending attributes has a great deal of value. If Charles1dad has a recording of violins that exhibits good coherence, lack of grain, and lack of excessive brightness in his system, and the OP finds the recording still has issues in his system, then it is system related and not an inherent fault of digital reproduction. If, on the other hand, this recording is found by the OP to be satisfactory, then he is going to have to live with the fact that he has somehow selected a bunch of bad recordings. The idea is to help the poor fellow narrow things down without running a series of megabuck experiments.
Very well said, Brownsfan, as is the rest of your post. And given that what is specifically in question is violin reproduction in the context of orchestral recordings, I think that the CD I suggested earlier would be an absolutely ideal choice for use as a reference recording.

In fact, I would suggest that those who consider the CD medium to be inherently incapable of providing high quality reproduction of orchestral music just might find themselves in a state of amazement upon hearing it.

I should add to my earlier comment, btw, that the recording engineer was the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson, with production by Charles Gerhardt.

Regards,
-- Al
01-04-13: Tarp38
I can sympathize since I, too, have noticed that digital can be cruel to high strings. A good deal of this problem can be atributed to early digital recording techniques. I never buy a classical CD recorded earlier than the mid to late 1990's. Telarc has a long digital recording history. One can easily hear the improvement in string high sound from the mid '90's on.
While I do not have any of the 1980's Telarcs on CD, I have a great many of them on LP, and IMO many of those have excellent sonics. And in the cases of those that don't, the primary reason is usually overly swimmy acoustics, which are clearly attributable to the microphone techniques and placements that were used on those particular recordings.

Try, for instance, another recording of Dvorak's "New World Symphony," Telarc DG-10053, Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony, which was released in 1980. I don't think anyone would ever accuse the string sound or anything else on that recording, at least in the LP format which I have, of being strident or otherwise less than excellent. The performance, though, is not my particular cup of tea.

Regards,
-- Al
Tarp, I agree with your comments re Praga and Audite, but I am surprised by your comments regarding Hahn's Sony recordings. My ModWright Sony 5400 captures quite well the sweetness of her live performances. Anyone who thinks digital is an unmitigated disaster really needs to hear a ModWright player.
Rrog,
You did`nt understand a word I wrote.Audiophile only recordings are the opposite of what I prefer to listen to(mainstream jazz labels big and small both). You need to use a 'good' recording to determine if the problem is in fact inherent to the CD it self,what`s hard to understand about that? If all the massed string recordings sound bad in this system(even with known good recordings)) then it`s a component/system problem.If good recordings sound good in this system then the fault for bad massed strings is simply the particular'bad 'recording.

If you consider good electrical power quality a bandaid that`s your choice. ANY component will benefit from cleaner AC power. Why blame a component for bad sound if the problem is a bad recording?
Regards,
The OP states listening to a ton of orchestral music. I find it hard to believe all of these recordings are bad.

Not everybody has bad power. If you are adding a power line conditioner to good power, what do you get? I am fortunate to live in an area with good power and every line conditioner I have tried only caused negative affects. Line conditioners and room treatment have become automatic responses to everyone with a problem. It is my experience that if your system does not sound right it's because it was not assembled properly.
01-04-13: Rrog
The OP states listening to a ton of orchestral music. I find it hard to believe all of these recordings are bad.
Ron, note that he used the word "often." That would seem to imply that they don't all sound bad. Which was what led me to suspect that the recordings that do sound bad may sound that way primarily as a result of excessive multi-miking and processing, which is very common in the case of classical orchestral recordings.

Regards,
-- Al
When I first read the original post it sounded to me like a general, overall system, type of complaint. Not just a few, specific recordings.

I know I'll probably regret saying this, but the following post from Rok2id does make a lot of sense and is definitely something to consider.

"01-04-13: Rok2id
After reading your post and the responses, I listened to several CDs to see if I could hear anything similiar.

Beethoven Sym #9 1st movement
Bohm and the vienna Phil

Same piece but Karajan and the berliners SACD.

Julia Fischer Bach concertos with ASMF

The Fischer disc was a little fast, but the strings were easy on the ears. no complaints. Of course she was great.
The Bohm was GREAT. Very smooth. No irritation at all.
The Karajan sounded sort of harsh and strident.
Both of the Beethovens were recorded by DG.
The Bach by DECCA.

A lot of CDs are like this with big orchestras. I own a lot of them. Have not listened to them in years, once a I got a better performance and recording. Just a wall of sound that sort of grates on the ears.

I would advise you, as someone said, get a KNOWN well recorded violin heavy piece and listen. If you find it grating on your ears, then maybe you do have a gear peoblem. But remember, if your system will play at least ONE CD with mass violins to your satisfaction, then it will play ALL properly recorded CD the same way. If you modify your system to make BAD cds sound better, what will it make the GOOD cds sound like. Don't say, ' MO Better' :) Beethoven's 5&7 by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna is considered one of the best classical recordings. Try it.
The Philadelphia Orch with Ormandy was know for it's violin section. But that was on LP. I can't believe I just said that. :) Good Luck."

Also, I really like Frogman's post overall. However, I'm not completely sold on the problem being digital. It could be, but I still think the preamp is the best place to start.

Given how varied the responses are. I think the OP should consider contacting The Cable Company. They have a huge lending library of cables, accessories and components that they send out so you can do an in home demo. I've used them many times and find them to be a great resource.
Hi Al, Good point. I also noticed he is comparing his system to live music, so there is a chance it could be over processed recordings.
Gentleman,

First of all, many thanks for such informative (and spirited) responses, and I failed to mention that I do have all of my components plugged into an APC S-15 power conditioner/sine wave generator/battery backup. I think that I will check out some tubes in the preamp and the Cardas cables to start with, spend some time with those, and listen. The CD player is fairly new (well-reviewed recently), and it is actually a CD5004 (not the CD3000,my goof), so I think it will stay at least for a while until I can eliminate other components. Those with the 1/2Es seem to agree that they are not at fault.
I think massed strings are the single hardest thing for digital to do right. Digital has come a loooong way in the past few decades, but I've always noticed that massed strings seem to be the most difficult task for that medium, and though it sounds better than years ago, it's still apparent to me.

Tubes and warmer cables may help to take the edge off, but IMHO, you probably need to try vinyl to get it right, especially if you listen to a lot of orchestral music.
"The CD player is fairly new (well-reviewed recently), and it is actually a CD5004 (not the CD3000,my goof), so I think it will stay at least for a while until I can eliminate other components."

That's good to hear. Anyway, this thread was a wild ride.