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.
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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