An affordable violin buyer's guide for beginner and intermediate players
In the violin world, there are many misconceptions about Chinese-made instruments. One of the most common is that the quality of Chinese violins, violas and cellos is inferior to that of other countries. “Don’t buy a Chinese-made violin,” so the thinking often goes, as the instrument search takes a turn toward European countries. Even those who might consider a very inexpensive Chinese-made violin will sometimes balk at a Chinese instrument with a four-digit price tag.
Here at Superior Violins, we’ve seen, played, set up and appraised literally thousands of violins. These have ranged in price from $75 to $75,000, with such countries of origin as Germany, Poland, Romania, France, Czechoslovakia--and China. We’ve noticed a trend in recent years, one that has caused us to abandon our own preconceptions about the quality of Chinese-made instruments. We’d like to share our findings with you.
Many of the instruments we’ve been able to play fall in the $2,000-$4,000 price range, a point at which violin buyers are getting more serious about their purchase and their commitment to music. This price range also serves as a sort of “dividing line” where quality and country of origin are concerned.
We talk to many violin buyers shopping for an instrument in this $2,000-$4,000 price range. While we’d certainly prefer to answer questions about sound quality, playability or construction, their first question is often “is the violin made in China?” The assumption is that an instrument at this price point must come from Europe. In reality, we’ve found that Chinese-made instruments in this price range almost always sound better and play better than European instruments of the same price.
In fact, we often sell Chinese-made instruments that sound better than European instruments costing 2-3 times as much. This is especially true in the under-$2,000 price range, where we’ve found Chinese-made instruments to be consistently superior to those made in Europe.
Shocked? You’re not alone. The truth is that Chinese manufacturers have made huge strides even in just the last 10 years. They’ve refined their techniques, improved their quality control and taken on the mantle of serious craftsmanship. Dollar for dollar, Chinese-made instruments consistently out-perform others in the under-$5,000 price range.
At prices around $5,000 and up, the advantage shifts west, to where smaller European shops turn out hand-made instruments of impeccable quality and sound. To learn more about what makes higher-end European instruments so amazing, check out our Euro-class Violins article.
At the very bottom of the price range (around $150 and below), nobody makes an instrument worth purchasing. We know--we’ve tried to find them. The reality is that you’re just throwing your money away when you purchase a VSO (violin-shaped object).
It’s All About the Sound
Assuming that you’re looking to buy an instrument to make music with (and not just hang it on your wall), sound should be a key purchasing factor. Yet sound quality is often overlooked in discussions of an instrument’s value, especially where country of origin is concerned.
Consider the process by which an instrument is appraised. In most cases an appraiser decides on the worth of an instrument based on the country of origin, wood quality, construction (hand-crafted or manufactured) and the condition. Rarely will an appraiser actually play the instrument to evaluate its quality of sound. Instead, the country of origin is discerned (or guessed at) and the resulting number is bumped up for Europe and down for China. The bias against instruments from China is reinforced.
As a buyer, you should reverse the process and start with how the instrument sounds and plays. Considerations of where and how the instrument is made are important, but should be secondary to how it makes you feel when you play it--and how it makes the listener feel when they hear it. Never has a concert, recital or performance ended with the audience checking the instrument’s label so they can approve or disapprove of where it was made.
Consistent Violin Quality
So why does China have such a bad reputation to overcome? The problem with Chinese manufacturing has been less about quality and more about consistency. When corners are cut and quality control is lacking, inferior products make it into customers’ hands. We know of a large instrument reseller that has at times returned up to 70% of their imported violins back to China. This means roughly two out of three instruments they received had a structural, cosmetic or sonic defect that made them unfit for sale.
We’ve experienced our own problems with quality control. In the early days, we relied on wholesale companies to check the consistency of our instruments. They would send us high-quality instruments, which we could then set up and ship to customers with confidence. The problems appeared when we would sometimes “drop ship” instruments to customers directly from the wholesaler. Turns out the quality of the instruments being shipped straight to customers wasn’t consistent. One customer would be tickled with their purchase, the next disappointed.
Our solution was two-fold: find Chinese manufacturers that shared our passion for quality, and backstop their efforts with our own uncompromising quality control.
First, we needed to find Chinese companies committed to delivering the best-possible instruments at every price point. We found this with companies that use less-skilled instrument builders for certain parts of the process and highly-skilled craftsmen for the most crucial steps. Costs are thus kept to a minimum while still delivering amazing construction quality and sound. Our buyers then travel to China several times each year to hand-select the best instruments from these companies.
Second, we decided we must personally inspect, set up and play every instrument we sell. This allows us to insure that you, the buyer, gets an instrument worthy of your trust in us. We no longer ship directly from our wholesaler to you (with very rare exceptions). You can be sure that the instrument you receive from us has passed our rigorous quality control process.
The results speak for themselves. The vast majority of our customers are completely satisfied--even ecstatic--with their new instrument. Just read the many instrument reviews on our site to hear customers share their experience. Superior Violins has taken the guesswork, risk and uncertainty out of buying a violin online.
Don’t Buy It Until You Try It
If finding an instrument with the sound you’re looking for is most important, how can you do that with an online purchase? The answer is simple: you first audition an instrument (or instruments) risk-free in your own home. Learn more about our Try Before You Buy program, where you can try out violins and bows before you purchase.
Many people have looked down on Chinese-made instruments since they first started appearing in our stores over 30 years ago. Much has changed, and violin buyers everywhere are discovering that China now builds the best-sounding instruments for the money. Only above $5,000 do European instruments consistently win in head-to-head, bow-on-the-strings tests against Chinese instruments.
"Great violin! My private teacher liked the Damiano a lot; he actually thought it was in the $5,000 to $6,000 range. His approval was the last checkpoint this instrument needed to clear, so we made the purchase. I tested it out against three others and the Damiano prevailed!"
Marvin (5 stars)
"Once my daughter played the Damiano she absolutely loved it! I made sure it was the instrument for her by bringing it to her violin teacher and she also thought it was an excellent instrument! I actually asked her how much she thought it was worth without telling her and she said at least $8,000."
Catherine (5 stars)
Are you shopping the under-$5,000 market for a high-quality instrument? You should be trying a Chinese-made violin from Superior Violins.
- We work with the best Chinese manufacturers, those as committed to quality as we are.
- We inspect, set up and play every instrument before we ship it out.
- We allow (actually expect) you to try out an instrument before you purchase it.
- We’re passionate about helping you find the best-possible instrument that fits your budget.