Picking and choosing a better violin

Edited: January 16, 2018, 8:05 PM · Hi everyone, I am a newer violin student/have been practicing every day for over a year. I am in the process of replacing my old violin. It was a Kennedy Violins Anton Gerard, and recently my violin instructor told me “your violin isn’t doing you any favors”. So, I have decided to try and find a better instrument. Hopefully one with good sound and playability that can get me through the next 5+ years without any issues, budget is 3K.

I live in the Portland, OR area and have gone to several local luthiers in the area, I currently have two violins with me on trial. The violins both have different qualities that I like but I have very limited knowledge about violins so I was hoping I could get some input from those of you with more experience!

Violin # 1, price $3000; is from Geeseman’s in downtown Portland. He told me it was made by him and one of his students. This violin seems to have a really full sound, it is loud, and has good projection. When I hear others play this violin I think it sounds pretty good, however I seem to struggle when playing it myself. It seems very difficult to play to me compared to the other violin I currently have on trial, but I like the sound it produces more. When I play it, I feel like it sounds rough/harsh and I have tried several different bows (including one very expensive one I also have on trial) and I still have the same problem. I have experimented with bow pressure etc. And I have just gotten more and more frustrated with it.

However, when my instructor played this instrument it of course sounded beautiful and she liked it.

Violin #2, price $2400 is from Schuback Violins in Newberg, OR. He had a ton of instruments in my price range but I walked away with a Chinese made violin to try out. Schuback told me that this Chinese violin maker has won some awards and he has worked with them for years… but I have no idea what brand or model it is…

This violin is beautiful to look at (one piece back) and it has a decent overall sound. It sounds good to me when I am playing it and It’s very easy for me to play it is very smooth. However, it is not nearly as loud as the other violin. This was especially apparent when I heard my instructor play both of them for me, this one sounds a little “boxy” like you are standing in a small room, while the other one sounds like you are standing on a stage. This one does not sound bad but I think it leaves something to be desired.

My instructors first impression when she played them before I played either of the instruments for her was that the Geeseman one should not even be put into the same category as the Chinese one, that it sounded much better to her.

However, after I played them for her she said that I definitely play the Chinese one better, and that I seem to have much harder time with the Geeseman one. She told me specifically in my bowing that I have nice full bowing on the Chinese one but not on the Geeseman.

It’s because the Geeseman one is so easy to make sound harsh/rough. It’s very sensitive or something.

My question is this: Do you think that the difficulty of playing the Geeseman one as far as making rough/harsh sounds goes is inherent to the violin itself? Or is it possible it may have something to do with the setup/strings?

If it is the violin, do you think that I may just not mesh well with it and that is a style or preference thing?

Or is it simply a skill thing that I should work to overcome?

I realize that it’s possible neither of these violins are “the one”, I am going to another shop; David Kerrs with my instructor tomorrow and will be bringing these in to compare. I would love to get one that is easy to play like the Chinese one and sounds like the geeseman one, but just in case I don’t find anything better I am curious about the consequences of keeping the Geeseman one.

Advice is welcome! Thanks for reading through this!

Replies (42)

January 15, 2018, 11:38 PM · Neither sounds satisfactory. Return both and try more instruments. There are endless thousands of new and old instruments in your price range.
Edited: January 16, 2018, 12:32 AM · Have you tried a Hiroshi Kono? It has got a really nice, full, big sound. However, I don't personally like how thin the top is, nor do I like the thin spirit varnish on the violin. It is though one of the best instruments you can get for 2,500USD that is not made by a Chinese maker or made in a Chinese workshop.

Also, you may want to try Scott Cao workshop violins that is around your budget and see how you like the sound. For a little bit out of your price range, the 1500 series is nice. It can be made-to-ordered with a specified pattern.

Some people might recommend a Ming Jiang Zhu workshop violin for that price range, but my personal experience is that all MJZs, except for the 925 series, all sound too thin on the E string range. They lack the overtones in the high registers in my opinion. And in terms of workmanship, Scott Cao workshop violins are more superior than MJZs.

Xueping Hu workshop violins are another option. I have never tried one, so I cannot share any experience.

Lastly, I want to suggest researching into some eastern European makers. But you can only get it somewhat a little bit out of your price range (around 3,500 USD) if you work directly with the maker. Otherwise, the prices of those violins would be at least twice as much as your budget if you find it in a violin shop in the US. Some of those eastern European makers make very nice instruments without the cost of a modern Italian violin.

One thing you can be sure is that, at this price range, don't let any violin shop sell you any "Italian" or "Cremonese" violin. They are not going to sound good, and it will not be something you will want to keep using for a long time.

January 16, 2018, 12:03 AM · At my store we have plenty of options in genuine antique violins in your price range, that my experience has shown sound better than these big name modern violins at a similar price point, too bad you are not in my area.
January 16, 2018, 12:42 AM · A number of student violins are built in such a way that they are very forgiving/limiting, and will make a consistent (if small) sound no matter how you bow. Better instruments are more sensitive, and can generate a wider range of sounds, both desirable and undesirable.

If your instructor is able to play the $3000 violin and make it sound good to your ears, the question should be what aspects of your technique do you need to develop so that you can also accomplish the same goal? Then this is an instrument that you can grow into.

This is the reason why my younger students prefer their cheap $500-$1500 Chinese violins at the beginning, but once they develop a palate, move on to other things. In particular, German workshop instruments from the first half of the 1900's are worth looking into, and many shops (as Lyndon mentions) carry them because they were made in huge volumes.

January 16, 2018, 12:53 AM · You shouldn't ever buy a violin you can't make sound good just because your teacher can make it sound good, I work with a very good teacher player, and she can make almost anything sound good, very good, that still doesn't mean you should buy it unless you like the sound when you play it, it may take years or you may never play as well as you teacher, buying a violin you don't like thinking you can grow into it is just not a good idea IMHO
January 16, 2018, 9:19 AM · I agree that one of the primary reasons to bring your teacher when you shop is so that they can point out to you what aspects of an instrument you don't like because you can't control it properly, and what aspects are inherent. Also, they are likely to be able to estimate how far you are from gaining that control.

We all have a mental picture of how we want to sound, I think, and we shy away from producing sound that isn't like that. In general, you want a violin that matches your desired sound, where you like how you sound now, but also leaves you room to grow.

In this price range, there should be dozens of available violins in your area, at the very least, which should give you plenty to choose from. If there's really nothing in Portland that you like, you can try getting trial instruments online (I second the recommendation for trying a Kono), but my guess is that you just have to search widely enough.

January 16, 2018, 10:15 AM · I think it's okay to take violins you like to the teacher. Sometimes, what you perceive as bad sound can be due to bad bowing or old/bad strings, so I'd confirm with your teacher. Plus, violin sound quality does not exactly corresond to price.
January 16, 2018, 4:31 PM · Crystal, if you aren't in some kind of special hurry, just keep trying violins from friends, shops, wherever, including those well out of your price range. That will help you refine what you're looking for, and what a "good" violin is.
Edited: January 16, 2018, 5:02 PM · Buy a bow instead!
Within that price bracket a good bow yields way better return of investment - sound wise.
January 16, 2018, 5:19 PM · You can try $1000 instruments too. They may satisfy you. Are you happy with your current bow?
Edited: January 16, 2018, 8:29 PM · Maybe you should try recording yourself (with the microphone a little far away). The Geeseman might sound a little rough because it is so close to your ear. The extra sounds that the bow creates don't travel as far as the tonal sounds. If this is the case, then the rough quality might bother you because your hearing is so sensitive (bravo), or the violin is very sensitive. Either way, it is possible that this violin provides room for you to grow (which is good, the Chinese violin would probably not last you as long), but it is also a personal preference.

Another thing to consider is the actual size and shape of the violin. The violin might be harder to play based on your hand size. I have a smaller hand and it's easier for me to play on smaller violins. This doesn't mean a smaller size like a 3/4. There is variance within a full size violin, some are longer, some are wider, and some have a thicker neck. If the violin is not the right shape for your anatomy, then you should definitely try other violins. I had a teacher with hands that were so small that she had a violin from a specifically smaller model with a thinner neck.

It is also possible that whatever violin you are trying could be altered a little bit with a string change, a sound post adjustment, or a different bow.

January 16, 2018, 8:28 PM · Thanks for all the great advice, some of it has been very helpful.
I went into the other violin shop with my instructor today. We called ahead and told them what I was looking for and in what price range. When I arrived, they had a room set up and told me that everything on the table was between 2-3k. Almost all of the violins were made by Klaus Heffler and I think one was a Paesold. (nothing had visible prices on it)

My instructor and I methodically went through everything they had set out left to right and eliminated whichever one we didn’t like as much. The second violin I had picked up we both really liked, so we compared everything else they had out to this violin and it “won”. It is a Klaus Heffler 703

We then started comparing this violin to the Chinese one and Geeseman ones I brought along. It blew the Chinese one out the water in terms of sound and playability.

When I asked exactly how much the violin was the guy who had been helping us was like “OH, I must have made a mistake, this violin is actually $4200.” I asked him if since it was his mistake, if he would give it to us within the price range they told us. He said the best they could do was $3500. I am not going to lie, I am still very irritated with this “tactic”. I do however, really like the violin and I have it at home with me on trial.

I fell in love with one of the bows I have on trial that is $650, I wasn’t planning on buying a new bow but now that I’ve seen what a difference it has made I don’t know if I can go back haha. My old bow is a Codabow prodigy that came with my original violin, and it is basically terrible compared to this other one.

Has anyone here heard of Klaus Heffler violins?

More than one of you guys have recommended the Hiroshi Kono, which I am considering looking into an online trial for (if I do that I may also try a Ming or Scot Cao as well).

I think I’m now trying to figure out of this Klaus Heffler 703 is worth destroying my budget for.

January 16, 2018, 8:37 PM · As far as the Geeseman violin goes, I actually had to bring it back today (trial was over). I still feel attached to its sound, but it was so very difficult for me to play compared to literally everything else I have tried. I'm kind of leaning towards eliminating it along with the Chinese one just because of that. My instructor who makes everything sound absolutely incredible did say she thought it's sensitivity/touchiness was inherent to the violin and that it may not be worth fighting at this point, but that she likes the sound and it's ultimately up to me. This is so much harder than I thought it would be!
Edited: January 16, 2018, 9:19 PM · Klaus Heffler is going to be a Chinese violin marketed by or finished by German company??
January 16, 2018, 9:31 PM · I feel like it might be helpful if your instructor could point out specifically what is limiting about your current instrument, and perhaps even point out places in your repertoire where it limits you. "Not doing you any favors" isn't necessarily specific enough to give you a proper idea of what to look for.
January 16, 2018, 9:35 PM · Lyndon,
I am not sure if they are Chinese/then marketed under a German name. There seems to be very little information about these violins online. I found some of them for sale at this website where they claim they are 100% german made.... https://www.violins.ca/instruments/violins/violins_heffler.html
January 16, 2018, 9:42 PM · Erik,
I would agree, looking back I would have gone about all of this differently. She has really only pointed out that it sounds very "boxy" and has poor projection and resonance (not sure exactly how that was limiting my playing yet). And long story short I no longer have it, in the very beginning of my search for a different one I sort of got "swindled" out of it. (A shop convinced me to trade it in, told me I had 30 days to try out the new violin I purchased. My instructor hated new violin even more, when I brought it back to return they had sold my old one and I only got $350 back for it when I had spent 1k on it a year ago).
January 16, 2018, 9:45 PM · Whether Chinese-made in the white or fully workshop-made in Germany, $4200 isn't outrageous for the most expensive workshop-made instruments.

However, the "accidental" inclusion and $700 "discount" (that's a big price move at this price range) sounds like a dishonest sales tactic. This was David Kerr's shop in Portland?

January 16, 2018, 9:50 PM · Lydia,
Yes, this was at David Kerr's shop in Portland. I completely agree with you, It felt very dishonest. And I would normally give them the benefit of the doubt except I just read a Yelp review where the exact same thing happened to someone else on 6/20/2014. I do like the instrument, but I do not like this shop. Geeseman and Schuback (the other two reputable luthiers out here) have a totally different (much more honest) feel.
Edited: January 16, 2018, 10:09 PM · Crystal,

Really, I would not shop with a dishonest dealer. And I think based on what you said about wanting to try a Kono, a Scott Cao workshop and a MJZ, the best place to get all that and MORE is (haha, I know Lyndon is going to trash on this one), is to have some home trial instruments sent by fiddlershop.com.

You can also look into their Holstein bench made (they are Chinese, though). I don't care how people are negative about online shopping for violins, but my personal experience is here to tell you: they do nice setups for these violins. And, because I have personally tried two different Konos, one from Quinn Violins and the other from Fiddlershop, I can tell you, Fiddlershop does a wonderful job setting up this instrument.

January 16, 2018, 10:42 PM · A lot of the chinese workshop instruments or any well made antique, under the 5k outfit range can be perfectly good tools and value for the money. If it sounds great, reselling yourself or trading back into the shop for an upgrade in the future is a good way to go. Most shops now do shipment of instruments on approval if the search in your area is exhausted. Inventory in shops are always changing, and a part of the shop's responsibility is to have a good standard of quality to fit a wide range of styles and tastes.

The shop I founded called Bay Fine Strings in San Jose, California, carries a good selection of both Chinese workshop instrumented, contemporary/antique German, as well as rarer higher end antiques, does national approvals so long as you cover shipping of your choice, and shipping is covered or deducted if a purchase is made. We're a new sponsor of v.com, you can check out the link below! Best of fortune in your search!

Edited: January 16, 2018, 10:56 PM · It's a very common sales tactic, to slip a much more expensive violin into a pile of trials. Frustrating, to be sure! :(

I'm going to disagree with Lyndon on this...many inexperienced players buy violins that are just marginally better versions of what they are used to. Just because you don't sound good on a violin now doesn't mean that you won't develop the technique to sound good on it in the future. Of course, if you hate it, it's one thing, but if it motivates you to explore...then maybe it is worth it? At a chamber music event I attended a few months back, some of the younger students had the opportunity to try a Guadagnini and a Vuillaume, and most of them couldn't really make a good sound on either of them, as they were so used to the properties of the inexpensive workshop violins that they play on.

It's the same thing with bows. If one has only played sub-$500 bows, Codabows, and the like, trying to deal with a Lamy, a Voirin, or even a good modern stick from Francesco is going to feel like being dropped into a foreign country where you don't know the language. It takes experience and deliberate practice to hone your ability to use the tools of the craft effectively.

For this same reason, buying incredibly expensive photography equipment doesn't mean that you'll somehow magically come up with the skills to compose an effective shot. One of my former students is a photographer who can take better shots with a Kodak disposable than I ever could with his most expensive gear. But it doesn't hurt to learn to use professional gear, and over time develop an understanding and appreciation for what sort of potential it has over a smartphone camera or a consumer-grade point-and-shoot (both of which admittedly are quite excellent these days).

Edited: January 16, 2018, 10:59 PM · It's worth noting, by the way, that it's not unusual for dealers to mix in one better instrument, or even a few better instruments, as an anonymous surprise, into the batch of instruments you're trying out. This happens with both violins and bows.

But they'll often tell you up front that not 100% of what you're looking at is in your price range, and they may even tease you by telling that one of them is exceptionally good. It's your chance to try a treat and help refine your taste, so to speak. And if they don't tell you up front, they'll tell you clearly after the fact that they deliberately put in something that wasn't in your price range, and they don't equivocate on price. Plus, usually what they throw in is far beyond your price range -- i.e., it's not a temptation, merely a glimpse at what you could have at a higher budget. (And in the process you might discover that you can't tell the difference and aren't yet ready for a more expensive violin.)

An "accident" with a "discount" is very different from that common situation.

(EDIT: I apparently posted simultaneously with Gene. I think it's okay to throw in an instrument that's slightly above the buyer's budget without mentioning it, since many players have some degree of flexibility. But not a bait-and-switch.)

January 16, 2018, 11:13 PM · I believe that, first of all, you should exchange the strings in both violins to confirm that the harshness or difficulty is not in the string setup and is inherent to the violin.
In the same sense I think that it is easier to tame a difficult violin putting forgiving strings than improving a mediocre one.
January 17, 2018, 12:07 AM · Cannot agree with Gene more.

I started late as a violin practicer, and every time I upgraded my instrument and bow, my techniques, as well as the finesse with sound improve dramatically. And then I refuse to go back to the violin of the lower grade. Even when I travel, I still take a violin that is of at least semi-professional quality, because practice is practice, there is no point of practicing if I keep practicing on an instrument that is not sensitive enough to expose all of my mistakes.

January 17, 2018, 1:17 AM · Crystal, decades ago when I was a student and first in the market looking for a violin I went to a violin shop I had gone to for years and found a contemporary instrument that really appealed to me. Bright, beautiful sounding, strong projection. My instructor at the time recommended another shop and we also found a violin in particular there.

Even though I preferred the first one, my teacher advocated strongly for the second one she helped me find. I listened to her and regretted it for many years. I subsequently learned she was likely getting a commission from the second dealer.

Anyway, you've gotten some great advice from really knowledgeable people including experienced instructors and a world class violin maker in David Burgess. The advice boils down to "take your time!"

To which I will add only buy something that YOU love. Your violin is your voice, not your teacher or anybody else. Good luck!

January 17, 2018, 1:17 AM · Crystal, decades ago when I was a student and first in the market looking for a violin I went to a violin shop I had gone to for years and found a contemporary instrument that really appealed to me. Bright, beautiful sounding, strong projection. My instructor at the time recommended another shop and we also found a violin in particular there.

Even though I preferred the first one, my teacher advocated strongly for the second one she helped me find. I listened to her and regretted it for many years. I subsequently learned she was likely getting a commission from the second dealer.

Anyway, you've gotten some great advice from really knowledgeable people including experienced instructors and a world class violin maker in David Burgess. The advice boils down to "take your time!"

To which I will add only buy something that YOU love. Your violin is your voice, not your teacher or anybody else. Good luck!

January 17, 2018, 4:33 AM · I put price tags on my violins so my customers know the price isn't made up on the spot, and so I don't forget the price!!
January 17, 2018, 3:34 PM · Thanks again for all the advice.

I have ruled out the first two I was asking about (the Geesemans and the Chinese made one).

I do really like this Klaus Heffler 703, however since it is over my budget and I'm not so sure about the shop I am going to check out a few more before deciding to keep it or not.

I called fiddlershop.com about an in home trial on the Kono, after talking to them they convinced me to try the Ming Jiang Zhu 909 Violin and the Holstein Workshop Lord Wilton instead. They should be here next Thursday and I'm interested to see how they compare to the Heffler!

January 17, 2018, 4:57 PM · I have a customer with a $3000 Ming Jiang Zhu, in a listening test I had a 100 yr old JTL French violin that sounded better for $1200, If your shops aren't even selling genuine antiques you're not really getting the whole picture.
Edited: January 17, 2018, 5:20 PM · Lyndon,

When I was at Schuback Violins they had quite a few 100 year old violins in my price range (I think most of them were German). I may take another look when I go to bring the Chinese one back and buy the bow.

I do really like this violin shop, they are just a little far away (1.5 hours no traffic, 2-3 with traffic). So it's tough to go back and forth, but it sounds like it may be worth it. I might be able to make it out there on Monday.

January 17, 2018, 6:08 PM · They may be trying to push a more expensive violin on you. I can tell you that the Konos that I've tried, finished by the House of Weaver, are easily the best contemporary workshop instruments in that price range that I've tried.

Plenty of other online violin shops carry the Weaver-finished Konos, and I'd suggest you get one or two on trial from elsewhere.

Put off buying the bow until you have the violin; you want a tonal match if possible.

Edited: January 17, 2018, 9:46 PM · Lydia,

The sound of a Kono is easily one of the best, and it is so easy to play, and it is probably the lightest violin I have played in that price range. This was why I had mentioned it. But in my opinion, the workmanship is questionable, which would also be my reason to recommend people to compare it with other instruments.

I have tried 2 Konos from two different shops. With one of them, some of the varnish came off during the shipping, which got permanently stuck to the violin case. To this day, that violin case still smelled like the varnish from that Kono.

Also, the pegbox is so soft that when I tried to retune the instrument upon receiving, the pegs easily pushed through and enlarged all the holes signicantly. Now I have tried a lot of new instruments in my life and know this is normal, but none were as soft as this one.

Also, I don't know about the rest of the fittings, but the pegs were certainly of the inferior quality than other violins which I tried in the same price range. Granted, Potter Violins probably fitted their own Weaver instruments with nicer fitting than the ones sent out to their dealers, which probably explains the higher price tag in their shop.

The main argument against a Kono is really this: the top is so thin, one just doesn't know how long this instrument will last. And secondly, the varnish is thin, although it probably contributed to the nice full sound it has. When I consulted with a luthier whether or not to retouch the varnish, he recommended against it. He also thinks that a violin with a varnish this thin will cause me more problems down the road.

And if I remember correctly, a workshop Holstein is within the ball park of Kono. Their bench made are more expensive, but not the workshop models.

But to respond to the OP: I still think a Kono is worth trying, just so that you can hear the sound it possesses, because it really does sound nice. If fiddlershop cannot provide a Kono for you to try, you should try other online shops. Each shop fits the violin with different strings and bridge, so you might also want to take the opportunity to see how creative different shops can get with the setups.

Have fun with the home trial experience! I know it costs money for the shipping, but I always enjoy so much getting different instruments sent to my home and just see what they do differrntly with the same violins. When you are at home trying these instruments, you don't have any sales pressure, and you are able to allow yourself to think quietly about each one of them and make better decisions, I think.

Edited: January 18, 2018, 4:55 AM · Crystal, I am not high experienced violinist, but I will tell you a few hints from choosing violin. I was buying new violin for me a year ago (yay, we have anniversary :-)).

I am from middle Europe, we have more instruments with slightly better prices, and I cannot fully compare the prices because what means for you 100 bucks here in my country means almost 200 so you can have for your budget much better violin in Europe.

I struggle little bit with choosing instrument. I had a few choices to made between new fabric made, but "maestro" labeled instrument (it was dedicated for high level students), or few older. For me, lover of history and memories, it won a beautifully made Karl Hammerschmidt violin, made in 1920, with beautifully carved head (at the end of scroll is begining floral motives - I will try to add link to image).

The violin costs around 2000usd, but it needs a few restorations (that is making price lower). I think it is category 4 000 - 4 500 in US (with reparations). I love the sound, it is typical german style violin, with little bit higher profile and little bit more roundy sound than french violins for example.

My wife has modern violin, made by famous czech luthier Vávra. It is 4500usd violin, she had bought like new instrument, handcrafted in 2006. It is also lovely instrument, modern concept etc.

We both like more sound of my violin, I like to play both, but my wife, when sometimes plays on my Hammerschmidt violin, she feels little bit worse playability, she feels that is heavier in weight and for some reason the playing is harder. I don't feel this. Strange, isn't it.

I think you have to feel and hear what you want to, it takes you. Try more and don't expect absolutely resonation with you at first tries, but focus on the sound.

Good luck :-)

P.S. My violin head

January 18, 2018, 5:49 AM · That sounds a lot more interesting than the Kono!!
January 18, 2018, 6:02 AM · I'd be annoyed about losing the first violin. I think at the least you should have gotten whatever they sold it for (was it more than $350)? I might ask for the remainder and if they can't do it, I'd leave several reviews relating your experience, especially since it sounds like this has happened to others.
Edited: January 18, 2018, 11:29 AM · Lydia/Y Cheng,

Yes I think it is possible that the shop was trying to push a more expensive violin than the Kono but when I talked to them they told me a lot of the things that Y Cheng has pointed out. That the Kono has kind of "unusual" possibly even questionable workmanship even though it does produce great sound. I explained that I would be comparing the violins to another that I have on trial and really like and they seemed pretty confident that the two they are sending are the best they have in my price range. Again, I realize this could be another "tactic".

January 18, 2018, 11:32 AM · Martin,
Thanks for the input, I definitely am realizing there is a lot of personal preference involved in this search. And I have realized that being able to try them at home is the only way I can really figure out what I like and dislike about the instrument. I don't do well at all with the pressure of being at the shop.
January 18, 2018, 11:35 AM · I've also arranged to go back to Schuback violins tomorrow. I will be looking through his inventory again, as I mentioned before he did have quite a few older (I believe they were German) violins in my price range.
January 18, 2018, 8:09 PM · Crystal,

I forgot to mention you should also try this place http://www.robertsonviolins.com/index.php?page=violin-inventory

February 6, 2018, 11:39 AM · Agree with Y Cheng on the Kono. Tried one at Bein and Fushi with some other 10K violins. They had the price mismarked at like 9K. It actually was the best of the violins I tried at 10K (they probably had about 8 violins in that category, which is at the low end for them
February 6, 2018, 12:11 PM · I'm boggled by a Kono being priced that high. They're normally $2500 workshop violins.

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