12 Sets of Violin Strings Compared

January 18, 2023, 3:40 AM · Last year, I became addicted to buying new sets of strings for investigating how they fit my violin. I now tried to end this expensive adventure by recording a short string comparison and publishing it on YouTube (see below). For the video, I recorded the first eight bars of Bach’s Sarabande from the second partita without any further discussion. Here, I’m providing my personal review of those sets of strings. I’m a biologist and amateur violinist, so this was a purely private research project. Below the video are the compared sets. Click on “Watch on YouTube” if you’d like to be able to easily click on the time stamps for each string set. See the bottom of this blog for more on the process of making this video.

0:00 Thomastik Dominant
0:35 Thomastik Dominant Pro
1:09 Thomastik Vision Titanium Orchestra
1:42 Thomastik Rondo
2:15 Thomastik Peter Infeld
2:49 Pirastro Evah Pirazzi
3:22 Pirastro Oliv
3:54 Warchal Amber
4:27 Pirastro Perpetual Cadenza
4:59 Larsen Tzigane
5:34 Pirastro Violino
6:08 Pirastro Obligato

If I remember correctly, I have so far mostly played Dominant strings. Like many amateur musicians, I sometimes did not change them for several years (and after changing I was usually struck how easy it was to play with a new set of strings). My comparison study started in early 2022 when I asked my luthier to put “something better” than Dominants on my violin. He chose Obligatos, but after two months I switched back to Dominants; for me, Dominants were much easier to play, and in contrast to the gold-plated Obligato E, the Dominant E did not whistle (mostly because the E string in the regular set is aluminum wound).

However, I thought that my Dominant strings never completely lost their sandy, or slightly raspy, background hiss on G and D that they had in the beginning. Now, after comparing all sets, I feel differently about that noise. I found that all sets had some sort of side noise, which one could also call a sound signature, and what I experienced as sandy might not be the worst version of a sound signature. While recording all sets within one week in January 2023, I was surprised how similar to gut strings Dominants do feel and sound, and how loud they are. In contrast to what some people might think, they are definitely not a “beginner’s set” (consider that, for example, Hilary Hahn and Isabelle Faust are using Dominant strings).

After the experience with Obligatos I was curious how other brands might influence my perception of sound, and I ordered a set of the new Dominant Pro. In contrast to Dominants and Obligatos, the Pros needed almost no time for breaking in; they never had that sandy side-noise of the regular Dominants and immediately provided a full sound especially on the G. During that time last year, I mostly practiced playing the Chaconne, and to avoid whistling I again used the regular Dominant E (which in very high positions produces more of a noise than a tone, so I eventually switched to using a Pirastro Gold E – but finding a suitable E is another story). I was impressed but not fully convinced by the Dominant Pro; they felt a bit too heavy and strong for my purpose. The next sets I tried were Evah Pirazzi and Peter Infeld, but to facilitate a comparison, I now switch to a more systematic order according to the list above.

From the four different sorts of Thomastik Visions, I bought the Vision Titanium Orchestra that have a reputation of being the darkest-sounding of the four sets – I thought I should balance out the sound of my violin that I experience as bright. The Visions had a most impressive break-in phase, starting with a sandy sound like the Dominants in the first few hours, then going through some extremely metallic hours, when playing in piano almost felt like running the thumb over the blade of a sword (not that I ever tried to do that). After a few days, the Visions lost much of that metallic component and felt like a mixture between Dominant Pro and Rondo. Lots of “growl” on the G, about as much as the Dominant Pro. (By growl, I mean that satisfying sound with a rumbling undertone one can evoke with enough bow energy, making the sound fuller and more guttural).

Thomastik Rondo, a relatively new set of strings, quickly became one of my favorites. I found them to sound sweet and non-artificial, with a full sound and yet a very good response also when playing pianississimo in the orchestra. They also get my first prize for tuning stability. As many others have noted, Rondos are particularly easy to play in the left hand. Although they seemed to be a lower-volume set in the beginning, the G and D strings developed an impressive growl that seemed stronger than in Peter Infeld and comparable to the Dominant Pro. However, my love for the Rondos has also been through some tough times; for example, I thought that they never completely lost their metallic sound signature, which sometimes disturbed me. When doing the string comparison sessions, I thought that Rondos are much brighter than the regular Dominants, and the left-hand feel was not necessarily better (though they are easier to play than Dominant Pro and Peter Infeld). However, Rondos do have an impressive lower register as well.

If Rondos are bright and open sounding, my first association when switching to Peter Infeld was that they were brilliant, focused, and sharp like a sword, in a good but slightly artificial way. I did not find them as responsive as the Rondos, since Peter Infelds seem to be “soloist strings” and to require more intensity both in the left hand and the right arm. The reward is probably more volume and a greater projection. My set had the platinum plated E that sounded and felt too sharp for my taste.

The five Thomastik sets that I tested had a common quality that one could partly describe as metallic, for better or worse. If the metal in the Dominants was a bit rusty in a good and colorful sense, like the sound and feel of gut strings, I found the Dominant Pro metal to be softer, and the Rondo metal the softest. The Vision Titanium Orchestra seemed to have little metal and somewhat recessed highs (after the break-in phase), and the Peter Infeld had the strongest but least metallic metal – the most artificial plastic-like metal, if this makes any sense.

On one of the many, many webpages about violin strings that I found during my little research project, I read that Thomastik Peter Infeld were developed as a response to Pirastro Evah Pirazzi – both seem to aim for maximum projection. My first impression when I put on the Evah Pirazzi was “plastic, rather than metal”. They needed a few days until they lost most of their characteristic high overtone noise (the sandy background hiss that I knew from the Dominants, although Dominants had it to a lesser extent). The Evahs were loud, but like with Peter Infeld, I found they do not stand out a lot when playing in the orchestra (and I guess many people use them for orchestra playing). However, I did not really like the Evah sound signature – for me, they had a non-metallic background hardness to their sound, a non-organic sound signature that is not warm and not cold, just a bit artificial. Of course, above that background, Evahs offer lots of possibilities for producing sweet and beautiful tones.

The next set are gut strings: Pirastro Oliv that have a luxury reputation for me since I was allowed to play an Oliv G in my childhood in the early 1980s, when many people played Eudoxa and some switched to Dominants, “the new strings with a plastic core”. Playing Olivs, or other gut strings, is a great experience especially if one aims to learn about characteristics of strings in general. My first impression was rather catastrophic, though. I noted down: “Spent the entire day tuning. Impossible to play clean fifths”. I then tuned the Olivs to 415 Hz, and a whole new world opened up when practicing the Chaconne. Yes, I had to work harder to get them resonating, but this meant a more natural articulation for Bach to me. I loved the grainy, growly, raspy sound that reminded me of a tenor saxophone and enabled a particularly precise articulation of the beginning of notes, while at the same time it was possible to produce an extremely mellow sound. This sound signature was neither plastic nor metal, just natural. In the six weeks that I played Olivs, the grainy “gutsy” sound was more and more reduced, but they were still relatively hard to play both in the left hand and right arm, so that I was forced to articulate more precisely. I must admit though that after those six weeks, I was glad to switch back to synthetic-core strings simply for their ease of handling; but I’m sure I’ll revisit gut-core strings again.

My first reaction when using Warchal Amber strings was that I completely fell in love with them. I thought “wow, this is probably how gut strings feel” (this was before I played Olivs). The Ambers had a modest amount of grainy / gutsy feel and also a very mellow sound, almost no metal, almost no plastic. They were a bit harder to play than other synthetic-core strings: for the chords in the Chaconne, the four strings somehow responded more separately, thus naturally supporting a more arpeggio sound. Now that I have also played Oliv strings, I still think that the Ambers come closest to gut strings. But my love has cooled down a bit. I still like them, but they now seem to sound relatively thin and bright to me, lacking the deep register that other bright sets like the Rondos have in addition to the high frequencies. I don’t really see why on the string charts available on the internet, Ambers are sometimes listed as vary warm rather than bright.

The new Pirastro Perpetual Cadenza are a fascinating set. They had only little of the Evah hiss in the beginning, and after about three days they developed an impressive volume and growl on D and G – maybe even more than the Dominant Pro. I did not find their sound particularly mellow, though; rather, I found it sharp, or sharply articulated, almost to the extent of fatiguing me mentally and physically. The Cadenzas offered a very easy response for the bow arm and an enormous exactness for the left hand, almost as if my fingers would snap in place when playing chords. I think I only began to understand the Perpetual Cadenzas when I read that they were explicitly designed to produce a gut-like sound. Nonetheless they will probably not be my favorite set: I thought that they are too much standing out when playing in the orchestra (not so much because of their volume, but because of their sharp sound character). Also, I again observed this non-organic hard background sound that I described above for the Evah Pirazzi.

Another set of strings with some gut characteristics were the Larsen Tzigane. I found them gut-like because they forced me to articulate more clearly with the bow arm – the response to bowing was slightly slowed down, which reminded me of the Olivs. The growl in the Tziganes is more metallic than in the Olivs, but I thought both sets are similar in an interesting way, also regarding their volume. Like in the Cadenzas, I was struck how precise the feeling in the left hand was with the Tziganes. This feeling does not necessarily translate into playing in tune, but it is a good feeling, and probably it is partially caused by the low tension of those strings.

violin strings

The last two sets in my string comparison video are the Pirastro Violino and Obligato. It seems both sets do have the same core material as the Evah Pirazzi. Indeed, the Pirastro Violino sounded like a cheap version of Evahs to me – they were grainy in a non-interesting way, as though the hard background sound of the Evahs was present but not their sweet beauty. I only played the Violinos for a week, but they did not really change during that week; so far, I do not understand why they have a reputation of being mellow. I liked them the least among the tested sets, which seems to correspond to their relatively cheap price.

Finally: the Obligato had nothing of the hard background sound of Evahs and Violinos. Yes, they are warm and mellow and addictive. But it was also a relief when I switched back from Obligatos to Dominants after two months. Interestingly, at that time I noted that Dominants sounded even warmer to me. I also found that Obligatos did not support very precise bowing articulation; due to their mellowness, it was harder to define the beginning of a bow stroke, and similarly it seemed somewhat harder to play in tune. Overall, compared to the other sets, Obligatos felt like an old model of strings to me (which they indeed are).

Some conclusions and open questions

So far, it seems to me that Thomastik strings are relatively similar to each other, while Pirastro produces strings with more different sound signatures, even among their synthetic-core sets. When switching back and forth, I thought that I consistently had to play sharper with Thomastik strings, making intervals slightly narrower. If this is true, I wonder how one can mix strings from the different manufacturers.

What I did not find was a webpage listing the years in which the different sets were first introduced by the manufacturers. It almost looks to me like none of the manufacturers wants to reveal the age of their products, i.e., the time that has elapsed since they were first designed. Is that because rarely there is a particular set of strings discontinued and the manufacturers still want to sell their strings that were designed decades ago? One exception is Thomastik-Infeld that proudly announced the 50th birthday of Dominants in 2020.

I also wonder whether strings like the Dominants are produced using exactly the same formula over the decades. I suspect that, as in other industries, strings may be silently updated from time to time, making sure that long-time users do not note strong changes. Here, one exception was Pirastro that announced a new formula for their Tonica strings in 2015.

Another conclusion is that different sets of strings might not sound so differently to an audience, or to microphones – but I found that the left-hand as well as the bowing feel varies greatly among sets. This is one reason why, for my YouTube recording, I chose a piece of music that is relatively difficult to play (for me); I think one can hear the differences in playability among sets of strings that I described above. Yet another conclusion is that it might not necessarily be a bad thing if strings are “hard to play”.

Yes, different sets of strings will sound differently on different violins. But I’m not sure a rank order of string sound characteristics will change a lot with different violins. I tried Ambers, Evahs, and Rondos with a second violin that sounds less direct and hollower than my test violin. This other violin sounded hollower with Ambers and Evahs, but a lot rounder and fuller with Rondos, which fits my experience with the test violin.

I also wonder why I found so few online reviews about Pirastro Wondertone Solo, although from the description, they sound interesting as well. I’m not sure I should try Evah Pirazzi Gold. I’m curious about Larsen Virtuoso and especially about Pirastro Passione. But wait, I wrote this text to stop myself from buying more strings!

At the moment, I’m playing Rondos with a Pirastro Gold E. But sometimes I find that Rondos have almost too much character, too much of that sweet metal. Maybe, after spending all that money, I’ll just return to Dominant strings one day.

I don’t know whether there is a “best” set of strings … let me know what you think.

My process for making the video

To find the best set of strings for my violin, I bought all tested sets in 2022 and played them for at least one week. In early January 2023, I strung my violin again with one set after the other, to record the same piece of music (the first eight bars of Bach’s Sarabande from the second partita for solo violin).

After changing to each new set of strings, I played for roughly 30 min before recording. To get the strings in tune quickly, I used a paper tissue to rub each string until it was warm; I did this three times in the beginning of the 30 min (as recommended by Thomastik-Infeld on https://bit.ly/quick_break_in).

For each new set of strings, I gently passed my bow across a cake of Cecilia A Piacere rosin twice (once up and down) and then used a toothbrush to clean the bow hairs from too much rosin (see https://bit.ly/brushing_bow_hair; I passed the toothbrush across the bow once).

Recordings were made within the same week, in the same room, using the same violin and bow and the inbuilt microphones of a Zoom H4n Pro recorder with the same recording level. Other circumstances that I held as constant as possible included my position in the room and the position of the recorder. I combined the 12 recordings using Audacity but did not otherwise edit the sound in any way.

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Replies

January 18, 2023 at 08:31 PM · Valentin - you clearly put a lot of careful, thoughtful work into your comparison of the strings to find what worked best for your instrument. I see that you also recorded yourself to get some idea of what the instrument sounded like to others, since particular strings can sound a particular way under your ear and different to people listening to you. I would find your conclusion more compelling if you had had someone play the instrument for you for more than eight measures and on more than one piece. I am not sure that a recording of eight bars, even under the controlled conditions you used, would be enough to address my concern. That said, you make a good case for your rating of the various strings.

January 18, 2023 at 08:54 PM · Tom, he also said he spent a week or more with his violin strung with each set.

January 18, 2023 at 09:04 PM · Twelve down. Several hundred to go!

January 18, 2023 at 10:02 PM · Very interesting and detailed review indeed. Thanks for including our Amber set. Just a brief note. Never "rub each string until it was hot" with any synthetic strings in case you want to learn its real sound quality. This method can be successfully used as an emergency measure in the Carnegie hall dressing room when you are replacing a broken string with a brand new one and the orchestra is already playing the overture :-).

January 18, 2023 at 11:00 PM · @Laurie - that is certainly important and shows the care he took. I am not sure it responds to my concern about how the instrument sounds to others with the various strings. Maybe I misread what he said, but I am not sure that my concern is addressed.

January 19, 2023 at 12:35 AM · It is interesting, the issue of how the strings feel and sound to the player, vs. how they sound to others.

January 19, 2023 at 01:28 AM · So many great string options available. I am a bit addicted to trying new ones myself. I just fitted a new set of Warchal Timbre strings to one of my violins. Beautiful looking and sounding strings. So far I am impressed. I look forward to playing them in!

January 19, 2023 at 03:29 AM · So far I've found the Warchal Timbre Strings give the best results for my violin. The G and D are both very warm and strong, similar in character to the Passione strings, but more stable. The E, essentially similar to the Amber E never whistles and is easy to play on.

January 19, 2023 at 10:47 AM · This was so interesting! Thank you.

I have also gone through a phase of searching for the best string / violin combination. In the end, I've settled on Thomastik Vision Solos for my good violin and Infeld Red for my rather bright spare. I find the Vision Solos blend better in groups than the Vision Titanium Solos.

I also was very excited to hear about the Pirastro Perpetual Cadenzas when they came out but was surprised to find that I really hated the sound on my good violin. Eventually, they spent a while on my other violin before being relegated forever.

I've stopped actively searching, but always interested in string reviews... hmmm maybe I should give Olivs a try...

January 19, 2023 at 10:50 AM · Thanks for the comments so far! Some answers:

@Bohdan: I had taken the description “rub each string until it was hot” from the Thomastik-Infeld website but actually didn’t dare to rub my strings until they were “hot”, so I edited my text to “warm”. My point in this process was not so much to get them in tune quickly, but to treat them all the same before recording. I also did not do all this tuning lower and higher that they recommend on their webpage for a quick break-in.

@Tom and Laurie: as an amateur musician, I actually care most about how the strings feel and sound to myself, and maybe to the colleagues from my string quintet and lay orchestra. But I guess what finally matters to you professionals is how the audience perceives the sound. I guess that for a compelling blind test of strings in front of a live audience, one would need to have the same violinist(s) play different sets of strings on different violins that themselves are as similar to each other as possible. Are there industrial violins that are produced with such accuracy that one could buy 12 identically sounding violins? And for a really, really good test one would even need to use different sets of violins with varying sound characteristics. But I think (and hope) that the choice of strings and of instruments will retain some of its mystery and ultimately remain a personal decision.

Looks like I should try Warchal Timbres!

January 19, 2023 at 11:47 AM · @Valentin: I know where you got the advice from and where they got the method from :-), it might be not appropriate to explain it here. Nevertheless, the method of rubbing is wrong and in most cases unnecessary. We have made quite a lot of research, trying to educate the public and disprove some myths. For example, many people are trying to clean strings using cork, assuming it is soft and therefore cannot damage the strings. Have a look at the last picture here https://shop.warchal.com/blogs/cleaning-strings-using-cork

Moreover, modern strings do sometimes even contain liquids, glues or pastes, that are heat-sensitive. Even the structure of the core may be affected. No any fiber producer is able to achieve sufficient tenacity without "lengthening" the fibers after being made (subsequently, in the cold state). The orientation of molecules changes, you can observe it even on a strip of a polyethylene film. When you stretch it, it becomes thinner, but then, paradoxically there is a moment when most of its elasticity has gone and it becomes stronger. (Not all films can be hardened such a way). It is the same process as with wire drawing. The wire gains its tenacity by drawing and losses it at once when being annealed.

On the other hand, tuning a string a semitone sharper does not damage it (provided the string is not attached in Wittner "additionally mounted" adjuster that has never been intended for tuning synthetic core strings).

As for your answer to Laurie, you can be sure there is no chance to find more instruments of identical quality. Even the quality (tension e.g.) of particular strings (of the same type) does deviate a lot at some manufacturers, although string production has been fully industrial. Finding more instruments of (at least) very similar sound quality would be more likely at any top-ranked reputable maker than from any mass production.

January 19, 2023 at 02:24 PM ·

I enjoyed reading your summary, especially since I went through my own string comparison phase with my first two violins. I had a Stainer copy and a Guarnari copy, both of which I found on Craigslist. (Likely, both made within a decade or so of 1900.) Though I spent a small fortune on my strings, I suspect the fortune you've spent is somewhat larger. :-)

When it comes to tone, I will (and did) go to any length to improve the tone of my violins. Both violins have since been sold. In the case of the Stainer, there wasn't much tone to begin with, so it was buy, buy, buy strings. I sold the Guarnari copy to a friend for a good price, who has since fitted the violin with an E, A, D, G set that gives the violin rather a nice voice.

I ended up with a very nice violin, which I purchased through a luthier. It came with Peter Infeld Pi G, D, and A strings, and an Infeld Red gold-plated, stainless steel E string, that seemed to be an ideal match for this violin. I've felt the need to make a only single, minor adjustment to this string set. Instead of the Infeld Red E string, I switched to the Infeld Pi E string which has the same construction and yields a similar tone. But being higher tensioned, it produces somewhat greater volume.

January 19, 2023 at 02:34 PM · @Bohdan: Thanks for all this information! So I’ll never rub any string again. However, I put on a new set of Ambers last week, non-rubbed, and my impression of the set was about the same as I described (and recorded) above. Further, I did not rub strings last year when I compared all sets for longer periods of time. I’m thus relatively confident that my modest 2023 rubbing treatment did not kill my current private string-comparison research project. But I’m aware that there might be reproducibility issues with results from any research that we do, be it private or academic! (Problems with reproducibility of science are a major focus of my non-musical research: https://camargue.unibas.ch/en/reproducibility).

January 19, 2023 at 03:59 PM · @Valentin: Maybe I should explain it better in order not to be misunderstood. I have not tried to say that the rubbing did affect the results of this test for sure. I just want to say that we do not suggest using that method of break-in speed-up (at least not with Warchal strings). As this is a public debate, I try to use any opportunity to educate and inform musicians, so the note wasn't devoted to you solely.

As for the Amber, we tried to design it as a warm (gut-like) set that respects the natural character of the instrument. Not imposing the violin any metallic or synthetic shade in order to increase its projection. Since I have never had any opportunity to play your violin, I can hardly say more. The Amber sound sample has been scheduled right after Olives sample. Olives are the best-sounding strings ever, no doubt. Many musicians may find them expensive and lacking tuning stability, but as for the sound, it is not easy to compete with them. Although Amber had been designed and considered gut-like sounding set, compared to (particularly) Olives we had to admit, that they do not provide such a projection. This is why we developed Timbres afterward, the best strings we have made so far. But, you know how it is with perfumes, wine, strings... There is no guarantee, you will like them too :-)

January 19, 2023 at 06:25 PM · Thanks for this, Valentin, I enjoyed reading it.

You asked about Wondertone Solo strings. When they first came out, reviews on Maestronet (and maybe here too...I can't remember) talked about how they were brilliant but sounded rather "superficial" and one-dimensional. More so than, say, Evah Pirazzis.

I too find them unusually flat and colorless in their sound quality. I've felt this way on a few different instruments. I prefer all of Pirastro's other synthetics (except for maybe Aricore) to these.

One caveat - I've found that the Wondertone Solo A blends very well with the Pirastro gut G and D strings.

January 19, 2023 at 09:45 PM · @Bohdan: Thank you for clarifying – I’m looking forward to try the Timbres.

@Andrew: Thank you for saving me 80 Euros! I’m going to spend them on the Timbres instead. :-)

January 20, 2023 at 12:21 PM · @Valentin - while Laurie is a professional, I am an amateur. Here is my $0.02 on the issue you raise in response to our comments.

I play in a community orchestra and a string quartet. Sometimes, I do play in concerts, either as a member of the orchestra or as a chamber musician. I don't want to sound awful to others because that would interfere with the groups' rehearsing or playing concerts.

I think it is probably also true that any strings that sound good to others are likely to sound good under your ear. Good luck in your quest to find the right strings for your instrument.

January 25, 2023 at 01:46 AM · A most interesting review. I have so far tested 5 of the 12 strings you listed: Dominant, Peter Infeld, Oliv, Amber, Obligato.

I liked the overall sound of Dominant A-D-G + Gold Label E on my 1921 Léon Bernardel, but the tone on the G string in mittel (medium) gauge crushed too easily above 5th position.

Another Thomastik A-D-G combo, Infeld Red, + Lenzner (now Optima) Goldbrokat medium E gave me far better results. I got the deep, warm sound in the contralto range that I really like - and a nice bright sheen in the E string. The G, with its higher tension, held up well in high positions, even with intense bow pressure.

The Reds were uncomfortably powerful for me; so, ever since first playing on them, I’ve used foam earplugs, L/R. I don’t insert them all the way - about 20 dB reduction feels very comfortable to me.

The only Peter Infelds I’ve used so far are D-G on this same fiddle + Goldbrokat medium E and Vision Solo A. This setup pleased me right away, although I now use Infeld Red G in place of Peter Infeld G. The Red G blends very well, to my sense, with the PI D on this instrument.

I’ve had good results with Olivs on my 1883 J. Altricher. So far, I’ve used only the D-G - stiff versions. I had previously played on Eudoxas on this instrument. The one time I tried regular Eudoxas, the tone on D-G crushed too easily from intense bow pressure. The stiff D-G worked much better for me. I could really dig in without crushing the tone, and the stiff versions were more pitch-stable throughout a practice session.

The Ambers are a real winner with me. I first tried them last year on the Altrichter and liked them right away. They were an even bigger hit with me on my 1869 Paul Pilat. The Pilat, with a full set of Ambers - E-A-D-G - comes nearest, among my three fiddles, to sounding like a viola in the contralto range - a sound I really like. And they deliver a nice clear sheen in the high tones on this instrument.

The Obligatos work well on the Altrichter - a little punchier than the Ambers were during an earlier tryout on the same instrument but still very pleasing to my ear.

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