Interesting bilind testing of Stradivarius Violin

Heard this the other day on NPR and found it quite interesting.

Stradivarius Violin Blind Testing

This of course relates to high end Audio too, when listening to your music System, how much do you use your eyes and how much do you use your ears.

Good Listening

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It is interesting and significant that this study involves players and not just listeners. I had always read "well, the players can tell the difference and prefer the work of the old Italian masters."

What needs to be stressed is that these instruments are the cream of the crop. They all sound great. The makers and examples, old and new, are carefully chosen for their ability to compete (unless I missed something). There are no clunkers here.
I don't think this will be the longest thread - for those who agree with the conclusions there's little to be gained by posting affirmation, and for those who are in any way offended by the underlying assumptions....well we know how they feel about this.
But, really it's all pretty harmless: should you actually hear with your eyes and/or wallet, whom are you harming? And if it gives you pleasure, likewise. I drink cheap wine (but expensive whiskey), drive a cheap car, and use very inexpensive cables. My audio system sounds pretty fabulous, Scotch imbibed or not, and I feel no real need to convince others of its qualities.
The 'debate' that the Strad article refers to is ultimately made of straw: the Romantics will never convince the Realists, and vice versa. We know just who we are, and argument is futile. One might just as well try to convince Byron to become an accountant....
But all great fun to read!
Seriously, now I am very glad I am not the only audio kook out there apparently whose hearing is not fine tuned enough to be able to clearly determine that a Stradivarius sounds best.

My daughter plays violin using a nice but non distinguished modern violin, and it sounds pretty good to me, but of course I am biased in this case. :^)
It's a bit of a Strawman argument, this whole thing with the Stradavarius, you know assuming from the get go that musicians have infallible ears. You know, I wouldn't be surprised at all if most of them were deaf, quite frankly.
Like any other listening test. Totally subjective!
"05-19-14: Rodman99999
Like any other listening test. Totally subjective!"

Not true.
These stories are so tiresome. Every few years the same "test"
is conducted; with the same or similar problems of methodology and biases
that render the results nothing more than bullshit. First of all, it should be
noted that there are, in fact, fine modern instruments, but any experienced
player knows that the very special qualities that make some of these old
(Strad) instruments special cannot be revealed in a minutes-long playing
session; they also require very careful set-up. The link below is a rebuttal
by a truly first-class player to a similar "test" done a couple of
years before this latest one, and his comments expound on the above

Let's look at the problems with this particular "test":

Did anyone notice that Joseph Curtain the "researcher" is a
modern instrument maker? Conflict of interest perhaps?

The article mentions that the players who participated in the test were
competitors in an international competition. Why is the competition not
named? Who are these players? Do you know how many competitors in
many of these competitions are nothing more than young, inexperienced,
and often mediocre players?

Who the hell is John Soloninka, the only player named; and quoted? I
never heard of him, so I poked around. The only reference I could find is in
a personal profile in which he is described as "an advanced
amateur"....Uh huh. And guess what his other career is: luthier.
Interesting, no?

In a different article about the same "test", Joseph Curtain
seeks to gain credibility by claiming to have made instruments for players
such as YoYo Ma. Well, that may be true; players have many instruments
for different occasions. But, guess what YoYo plays on when he gives
recitals or solo performances?: his 1712 Davidoff. Perhaps the Curtain is
saved for those outdoor gigs on days with possible rain showers.

..a Strad with what strings...with what bow....with what player....with what what hall....there is no way to tell!!!
****You know, I wouldn't be surprised at all if most of them were deaf, quite frankly.****

Frogman wrote,


I said I wouldn't be surprised if most of them were deaf because of the night after night sitting and playing in orchestras with high sound pressure levels. That can't be too good for the old hearing. Maybe they wear ear plugs.
05-20-14: Frogman
****You know, I wouldn't be surprised at all if most of them were deaf, quite frankly.****


He's referring to the fact that SPLs in the middle of an orchestra can be quite loud. If ear protection is not used, hearing damage is quite possible. See the following article if interested:

From the article:
... the A-weighted equivalent
continuous sound pressure level LAeq measured
over the duration of a single music piece, on the
stage among musicians of a concert orchestra
(wind instruments) is 83.0–106.5 dB.

Playing in an orchestra is not likely to make you deaf--unless you're sitting BEHIND the horns, which no one does.

Joseph Curtin (name was misspelled in the article) is quite well-known and no doubt has a long waitng list. He likely needs no advertising.

The fact that the players were fooled is huge. I don't think that some people are getting this. That is the difference between this and previous tests which relied on the listeners and not the players to judge the instruments.
Geoffkait, I hope that what you wrote is hyperbole more than anything; and,
surprising for someone who cares so much about the more ephemeral
aspects of sound. Tostadosunidos is quite right in that playing in an
orchestra is unlikely to cause deafness. Now, it is true that some musicians
do suffer hearing damage from many years of playing in orchestras.
However, musicians in orchestras today are extremely conscious of this
potential and are very very careful about using protection when necessary.
Moreover, since the potential for hearing damage is cumulative, many
players will use protection while off the stage during non-working hours in
order to limit the total exposure to loud sounds over the course of the day.
There is a lot of misunderstanding and myth about this, the Strad business
and many other aspects of a professional musician's life.

Tostadosunidos, Curtin may be well known, but not as a player. He is a
violin maker and that was my point about conflict of interest. Additionally,
there are musicians and then there are musicians; let's just leave it at that.
Anyway, and I will say it again, there are fine instruments being made
today. However, it is absolutely true that for many players the Strads and
others have very special qualities that are often not found in modern
instruments. To not acknowledge that is simply to not understand what
most truly accomplished musicians look for in an instrument and to not
understand the process of playing music itself. Again, a lot of myth and

What is being talked about here does not apply only to string instruments
but also to woodwinds, brass and even percussion. Instruments back
when Strads were made (and winds in more recent times but still before
what can be considered current) were made with a different sensibility and,
ironically, without the help of modern "knowledge", techniques
and even computer analysis; there was more reliance on craftman's
intuition. Many of these vintage instruments are actually harder to play at
first than many modern instruments and require a certain familiarity with
their unique character before the special qualities of projection, complexity
of tone, and feeling of response reveal themselves. The way an instrument
responds does not necessarily have anything to do with that instrument's
inherent sound and what a listener may be able to hear as a difference, but
rather it is what determines wether the player will feel at home with that
instrument; a consideration which will then allow (or not) that player to fully
express the music as he feels it and that is a key point. The choice of
instrument for an accomplished player is very personal and like a marriage
of sorts. Some players may want the faster response of a modern
instrument and be content to sacrifice that last tiny bit of harmonic
complexity in the sound, while a different player may feel more comfortable
with an instrument that demands some coaxing and rewards with a certain
depth of tone and power of projection not possible with the other. To
anyone who thinks this is just gobledygook all I can say is that you just
don't understand.
Great debate everyone, thanks for the responses.

Good Listening

I've heard judges at youth competitions agonize over how to score a poor kid with a poorer instrument vs a rich kid with a better one.
Anyone who does not know sound is different with your eyes closed or open is not serious about music.
Anyone who doesn't know you listen with every sense AND your memory is not there yet.
And anyone who thinks the great old instrument thing is a fallacy is a fool.

Humans are integrated beings, like a audio system every part matters.
And every"room" sounds different .
I was reading up on Stradivarius instruments on Wikipedia.

From what I read, quantifying if and why these particular instruments sound different or better than others is kind of like trying to do the same with fuses in hifi gear. Clearly part of the story here is the legacy and historical impact of these instruments which are very valuable as a result of reputation and age.

Its one of those cases where clearly there may be physical differences from other designs, but quantifying the sound quality remains elusive.

Clearly, few every day shlub musicians would play such an intrument in public or be recorded playing one, so I suspect the skills of the players overall contribute to the instrument's reputation.

I have to believe its possible to make a modern violin that is at least in the same league as one made 100s of years ago. IT might sound similar or different, maybe even better, at least in some ways to some?

I am a firm believer that time always tells though when it comes to practical assessments of value or quality. Good things last, bad things tend to run their course for the most part, but there is always something new on the horizon.
That's right!
Musicians prefer new and fresh violin sound vs. hundreds years old Stradivarius that are more collector's items.
It's far more about the fingers and the ears than the instrument. However, if two players are more or less equal then the one with the superior instrument should prevail.

Not all Strads are created equal. Some sound far better than others. Also, instruments made by Guarneri del Gesu are preferred over Strads by many top players. And Hilary Hahn uses a much more recently made instrument from the shop of a French builder (Vuillaume, 1864). She could have a Strad if she wanted, no doubt!

As for Joseph Curtin, I don't know how well he plays and didn't think he was part of the performing end of the show in question. But I'm sure he has spoken with countless top players about desirable and undesirable qualities (some of which are subjective) found in instruments. He otherwise could not have risen to the top of his field.
"It's far more about the fingers and the ears than the instrument. However, if two players are more or less equal then the one with the superior instrument should prevail."

I suspect the musician's ability to master any particular instrument of good quality matters more than the instrument itself.

Its like the old synergy story here with hifi gear. The best assembled setup usually wins, not necessarily the best quality components.

It's usually the contributions of the users/people that matter most, not the instruments, objects or tools they dabble with.
One can't help wondering why the worlds best violinists, you know like Heifitz, of the past hundred years owned Strads, Amati or similar high end instruments for their own AND played them in concerts. Same with the less renowned but very competent violinists of the orchestra, in terms of owning and playing expensive world class violins. I'm kind of thinking they probably prefer the sound of the expensive instruments, eh? If you get Heifitz on the panel that can't hear the difference maybe then I might get on board the placebo train. Maybe.
Great to know you guys know more about violins than Elman. Grumiaux, Heifitz, Mennuin,Millstein , Oistrack, Stern, Szigeti etc etc etc etc .

Real shame all those fools did not have your collective wisdom to guide them in their instrument selection.
I"If you get Heifitz on the panel that can't hear the difference maybe then I might get on board the placebo train."

With great contributions to the state of hi fi sound like teleportation tweak, flying Saucers, and clever clocks, I suspect you are way overbooked for that particular train already.
There could be any number of reasons why a working musician would prefer not to have an irreplaceable and priceless instrument as their everyday instrument. As a practical matter they are a pain in the ass to deal with in regards to travel and security. It's only a late 60s Martin, but only two people are allowed to touch Willie Nelson's guitar, Willie and his long time guitar tech. I can only imagine how a musician would feel about a Strad. As others have commented there are some excellent modern instruments available that don't bring that extra baggage.

I've read that many of the Strads used in performance are not actually owned by the musicians using them, but are loaners from wealthy collectors/benefactors. A nice case of the kindness of strangers.

Just out of curiosity, what other vintage objects are considered superior to their modern equivalents? I don't mean more desirable or valuable, but actually better at their intended task.
Mapman wrote,

"I"If you get Heifitz on the panel that can't hear the difference maybe then I might get on board the placebo train."

With great contributions to the state of hi fi sound like teleportation tweak, flying Saucers, and clever clocks, I suspect you are way overbooked for that particular train already."

Finally, a funny post from you. Good job.
05-21-14: Onhwy61
Just out of curiosity, what other vintage objects are considered superior to their modern equivalents? I don't mean more desirable or valuable, but actually better at their intended task.
As a collector of such things, I can attest that any of the better AM radios from the 1930's, if in top condition and/or well restored, can way outperform any modern AM radio or receiver I have ever encountered, in terms of both sound quality and weak signal reception capability.

Also, many vintage FM tube tuners from the 1950's and 60's, if in top condition and/or well restored, would IMO certainly be competitive with and in some cases superior to the best that modern technology has to offer.

Best regards,
-- Al
Linear thought is a disease. To assume that things here and now, aka modern, are necessarily superior to other times ,places and things is a severe error.The reverse is OFTEN true.
Vinyl lps are probably another example like radios from their heydey.
Onhwy61 wrote,

"Just out of curiosity, what other vintage objects are considered superior to their modern equivalents? I don't mean more desirable or valuable, but actually better at their intended task."

Electron tubes, for one.

Ok, for a well informed opinion from someone who was participating in the test, read this first person perspective on what happened.
There are any number of objects made in a superior fashion in the past for tasks that were more commonly performed in the past. Japanese swords and laminated steel were better in the past, but we don't have much need of swords that can cut through three bodies with one swoop anymore. Baskets, needlework, hand woven carpets from Asia Minor, wood carvings in churches, wood and steel engravings, the list goes on and on. The question might be more meaningfully posed as: what objects in current common use were were made better in the past? Then the answers become a bit more nuanced in my mind. On the one hand, any new Mercedes AMG is superior by all measurements to a Mercedes 300 SLR Gullwing. On the other hand, it's hard to deny that there are any number of aspects to the 300SLR which seem superior regarding attention to detail, craftsmanship, and aesthetics. Judged by the standards of "better at their task," no contest between old & new. But luxury items of all kinds, whether cars or musical instruments, need to convey qualities beyond those defined by numbers & statistics.

Thanks for digging up the article above, very informative.

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful debate on this subject.

Good Listening

I don't think this has been mentioned yet: we are living in a golden age of instrument building. There are more top-shelf violins, guitars, etc. being produced now than ever before. Heifetz and Elman did not have a lot of choices when it comes to fine, newer instruments. Many players in modern quartets are opting for new violins, violas and cellos.

BTW, Perlman says Oistrakh's strad was a good, not great, instrument FWIW.
I'll wager Itzhak likes more syrup on his meal than David did.
"Just out of curiosity, what other vintage objects are considered superior to their modern equivalents? I don't mean more desirable or valuable, but actually better at their intended task."

McDonald's hamburgers (they keep shrinking), gas with led added to it, politicians, old records, Star Wars and the electric chair.

I'm sure that there are many other examples, but those are the ones that come to mind right away.
Photon46, thanks for providing the link to the article about the musician's perspective. She gives a good account of how many variables are involved and how it's not an either/or type question.

I'll wager that there wasn't a great deal of choice of syrup in the USSR during David's lifetime.

There are Strads that, history aside, have less value because they are lesser instruments.
Just as with the great "do cables make a difference"
or "can tweak XYZ make a difference" debates, there
will always be a personality type who will be predisposed to,
or lean towards believing, no matter the proof or testimony,
that the differences are mostly imagined. Even when
purporting to be evenhanded, distinctions such as
"realist vs romantic" are made that only highlight
the built-in bias and inability to respect (and potentially
learn from) someone else's experience or reality. I suppose
that they will never be completely convinced, but it is
interesting and telling that many of them are likely to be
more believing of the effects of audio tweaks, which they may
have direct experience with, than of things such as the
subject of this debate with which they probably don't.

One issue related to the subject of this thread which has not
been brought up relates to one that is often discussed within
music and musician circles: the phenomenon of the
homogenization of orchestral sound (orchestra to orchestra and
player to player). It is well recognized that orchestras have
been losing some of their distinctive sound personalities;
even in Europe where orchestras have traditionally played with
very strong and distinctive stylistic and "sound"
personalities. Clearly, a musical instrument is a means to an
end and a great virtuoso can, to a degree, express his/her
personality on an inferior instrument, but it should not be
difficult to understand how an environment which does not
nurture or accept musical individuality to the degree that it
once did would also result in modern instruments that,
likewise, have less personality. The two related trends (and
others such as the phenomenon of the jet-setting guest
conductor) feed off of each other and contribute to orchestras
and soloists who sound more and more alike. Is this
homogenization an indication of superiority?
Frog, of course not. musicians are not from Mars, like all
human beings and institutions they are being finely ground down to the interchangeable level required by Globalization ,aka late-stage Capitalism.
Homogenization is what's desired by those who are afraid of differences, and those who can appreciate differences.

This reminds me of that old Twilight Zone episode where everyone was made to look like a small, select group of great looking people and there was this one hold out who wanted to be unique but was forced to go through the procedure and came out loving her new look, even though it was like everyone else.

It reminds me of some of the conversations here. :-)

All the best,
True enough Nonoise, but at the level of analysis of Globalization, we are talking about uber-powerful factors, chiefly economic, that are MANY orders of magnitude above individual psychology , or even large group factor.
Schubert: "musicians are not from mars..."

Aren't you forgetting Jimi Hendrix?
No, it was Sun Ra that was from Mars.
I had lunch with him once and he told me so.(no joke)
I'm Tan from the Sun.
I am not convinced of the validity of the methodology so have some difficulty with the conclusions drawn from the test.

That being said, I also have difficulty with the assumption that all Stradivarius instruments are superb and therefore worth vast fortunes. The man had to have some duds, he couldn't have done his best work all the time and right out of the starting blocks.

Another assumption that bothers me is that all modern instruments are inferior in some way.

Plus one or two minutes on an instrument even if the test was valid would only give results for first impressions. Could those opinions change if an artist played each instrument for say a month or in a concert hall?

For me "The Battle of the Fiddles" leaves more questions than answers.
Paul McCartney's mom's from Venus and dad's from Mars.
Schubert, that's good. I had heard he was from Venus. That must have been a very interesting lunch.

One of his trumpet players (Martin Banks) moved here to live out his "golden years." Nice guy, good player.
All his players loved Sunny , he was very talented, sweet man, just a nut-job on the side. He may have said Venus, was a long time ago.
Schubert and Tost, actually Sun Ra was from Saturn. ;)
He might have been from all three, a true character in the best sense of that handle.

Would love to know more details about that meeting. Topics of conversation, personality quirks, food, etc.