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Chinese Violins vs. European - The Truth May Surprise You

Michael Sanchez

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Published: March 23, 2015 at 5:01 PM [UTC]

I have played hundreds of violins over the years, and have written this article to help you guys open up your thinking to the common myth that violins made in China are not worthy of purchase. I worked as an instrument rep for Guarneri House Grand Rapids for 3 years in the mid 2000's, and then for Nashville Violins in the late 2000's. Trust me when I say I've seen it all and played on just about everything in the $2,000-$3,000 range.

The biggest thing with this price range is that you have to understand you shouldn't be looking anti-Chinese. I get many calls from people that are interested in a violin in this price range and the first thing they ask me "is the violin made in China?" I wish that wasn't the first thing I had to explain, as certainly I would rather talk about which violins I have chosen that sound the best through my experience.

If you are looking for a violin $5,000+, this article doesn't really apply to the argument that Chinese is better than European. To be honest, I have found some of the best violins in the 5K+ range to be European made instruments, and that is what I recommend to students. The reality though is that in the $2,000-$3,000 price range, you are going to find the best violins made in China, and anything European (similar price range), isn't going to match up to the best Chinese quality. You can let that turn you off (some will stop reading here), or you can read further.

I have played hundreds of consignment instruments over the years including many German copies etc. that are in the 2-3K range, and I have never found one to sound better than the best Chinese instruments that would be the same price. When an appraiser evaluates something other than Chinese (and you have good craftsmanship), the price is going to be higher. Here is what you have to understand about the pricing of an instrument.

When a shop prices a violin, they are not relying on the sound quality of a specific violin. They are actually pricing each violin based on the country of origin, wood quality (hand crafted vs. manufactured), and the condition. So when a violin shop sees that a violin is German with a label, they auto default to a higher price just based on the country of origin. Every shop I have worked at, the appraiser (shop owner) never actually plays the violin to see what it sounds like before putting it up for sale. This concept proves that violin sound is indirectly related to sound quality. I have done a lot of videos on this concept and my entire Chapter 2 in my book covers this concept.

If you didn't follow me there, what I'm trying to say is that if the goal is to find a great sounding violin (I'm assuming you aren't looking for an antique for your wall), you need to make sure it is Chinese. I have done hundreds of tests over the years and played on pretty much everything out there (I have seen them all through teaching privately), and every violin that sounded good in this price range was Chinese (the bad ones were non-Chinese). Being that I am now a dealer, I understand the reason why that is and am telling you that many brand names are made to disguise that fact. I hope nobody gets upset with me there, but it is true.

So why do Chinese violins get such a bad reputation? It is not because of the lack of potential, but actually more the lack of consistency. I was told that a large instrument manufacturer (I won't mention names) actually returns 30% of their violins back to China from their original shipment from Chinese manufacturers. That means that 70% of those violins had some sort of defect (cosmetic, bad fingerboards, etc). This makes total sense to me, as I have purchased about 10 crates of violins from China (dealt with problems every time). So what is the key then for you guys to get the 30% that I'm talking about?

When I first started promoting violins, I had two middle-men that I would work with (I won't mention names). I relied on them to ship out the Chinese instruments that I loved (at first I thought 100% were as good as the ones they sold me on). Over time, I started to notice customer complaints out of some of the violins they would drop-ship, and it seemed almost like a crap shoot (some customers were thrilled about the quality of each violin while others were angry). Finally I came up with a solution to this that I'll share with you. It involves obsoleting drop-shipping and focusing heavily on quality control.

I recently found a Chinese guy that plays in a professional orchestra that is obsessed with the sound of each violin he sells to me wholesale. He was actually the first one to explain to me that the distance between the bridge to the start of the tail piece should be 5.5 cm on a violin. I was skeptical but after he adjusted a violin for me, I was shocked at the difference (projection increased x2). He is that kind of guy, and he was very real with me about the process in China.

What he does, is he gets the structure of each violin created in the base shop, and then pays workers 8 times more at another shop to do the detailed work (fingerboard setup etc). This raises the consistency to about 85%, and he goes to China 4 times a year and picks only the best ones out of the bunch. We played all these violins at the NAAM show, and were blown away by the sound quality and consistency. He believes in doing all the hard work up front with instruments (quality control), so that customers don't complain and want to return the violin back to him. Certainly this is someone that I hope to work with for a long time, as he carries the same vision of consistency and sound quality that I want to provide to the violin world.

I'm now working with three lines of violins that go through this process. The results speak for themselves. So far every student that has tried out one of these violins, they have bought one, and each time they went through an intense approval process. I personally bought one that I find plays like it should be in the $8,000-$10,000 range, but it is only $2,500 retail.

Here is the scoop. I don't want you to think I'm trying to sell you on these violins. Honestly they are great, but I know other shops have already figured this process out and are doing the same thing. I actually know which shops they are, but I don't know if it would be good to mention them. The ones I don't mention might not be happy with me.

So in conclusion, be open to trying out violins in this price range and keep in mind the ones that sounds the best are going to be Chinese 99% of the time. Keep in mind the consistency though, and if you get something that doesn't seem good, send it back. If you find a shop that has already done quality control for you though, that is when you are going to be thrilled with your purchase the first time.

If you have any questions, feel free to visit my Violin Tutor Pro website.

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From Seraphim Protos
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 2:03 PM
I am a strong proponent of Chinese violins (for beginners, anyhow).

I have purchased at least a dozen violins from Old Violin House. The most expensive of these was $450, most of them cost $250 or thereabouts. All have been good, the $450 one was excellent. Most have required some adjustment: soundpost position, certainly a new set of strings, perhaps a bridge needed some thinning out, or an afterlength adjustment as mentioned (1/6 ratio of vibrating string length to afterlength). Not rocket science type stuff.

Remarkable quality you can get for the price.

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 2:11 PM
It sounds like the big breakthrough in your business model is to have a trusted associate visit shops in China and select the particular violins to import, rather than taking bulk shipments and having to send back the majority that are of unacceptable quality. I have to say that, on its face, this does not strike me as a ringing endorsement of Chinese violins. Moreover, we've been hearing the same thing from the big retailers for years, that they go to Paris, Beijing, Prague, or wherever, and hand-pick the instruments they sell. (And following up on Seraphim's comment, the big retailers also invariably claim to set up and make these adjustments to the student-range violins on premises, so what you are saying is that Old Violin House is either unwilling to do this or unable to do it properly; most people buying a $450 violin for their child are not going to know how to do any of those things that you say you do).

I just don't see what's new or different here.

From Karis Crawford
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 3:04 PM
I have a Chinese violin that I bought in the $2-3k range and I definitely have to agree. Many teachers who have heard this violin say that they thought it was worth more than what I paid for it! I am very happy with my violin and would be curious if I got it appraised based on sound quality how high the cost would be.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 3:04 PM
The reason I approved this blog is that it reflects what I have been hearing from many corners: that the best $500-$3,000 violins are coming from China. That said, so are the worst, so one has to be careful and selective. High-volume, cheap labor, yes. But there is quality emerging from all of it, especially if there is an insistence on specific quality controls by the importers.
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 3:10 PM
So what happens to the 30% of instruments that are rejected by discerning retailers such as yourself? I don't think they go back to the factory and get converted into cigar boxes or matchsticks. I think they re-enter the distribution chain and rattle around until a more naive customer happens along.

Result? 30% of the instruments out there are not worth the price paid, and are damaging the brand name just by existing.

Until the factories themselves show a little pride of craftsmanship and take responsibility for ensuring that their 'duds' never see the hands of a student, I think that assurances by you (and everyone else trying to sell these instruments) that "WE don't sell the bad ones" will ring hollow, and the potential of these factories to elevate the art of violin manufacture will go un-realized.

Posted on March 24, 2015 at 3:21 PM
Dear Mr. Sanchez,

Thank you very much for this article! I have been thinking of buying a violin lately, and the same thoughts have gone through my mind. Being on a tight budget, I have been unwilling myself to pay more just for the sake that a violin is, let's say, French or German, for example. To me, functionality plays a major role, and it makes sense that at least some of the Chinese will get that right quite well (China is a big country) but for a lower price. What also partially convinced me, was that my old violin teacher has a medium range French violin for which he paid a lot, that doesn't sound so good, and I have a "low range" Chinese violin which I dare say sound a little better.

Anyway, thanks once again.

(South Africa)

Posted on March 24, 2015 at 6:01 PM
I agree with the comment and would like to share my personal experience. Recently, I had to upgrade my daughter's violin to a half size. We tested played 3 violins at the shop. A french and 2 Chinese made ones. My daughter was immediately 'in love' with the French one...We brought the violins back to our teacher (who handles a few Stravs and many violins before in his life. He is a very well-known teacher in San Diego, CA) and he tested played all of them and based on the sound, he actually picked the least expensive Chinese one. He said that the french one, that was priced between 2-3 k, has a 'dull' sound and the wood was not impressive. I think for intermediate or advanced intermediate students, a good Chinese violin is an a good option. Obviously, due to the quality control issue, one should really test play it before the purchase.
From Michael Sanchez
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 6:03 PM
My target audience through all this was the person that has heard (or had a bad experience) with Chinese violins and because of that has shut down the idea of entertaining getting any Chinese violin in the future. I was also hoping that this article would educate people where that cutoff line is (in my opinion), where you should heavily lean Chinese or non-Chinese. To me this is a huge distinction that is heavily weighed by the market, and my intent was to help people understand the reason why there is that cutoff point. So if you are looking 3K or below, go Chinese. If you are looking for 5K and above, go European. I hope that some people are considering that now, where previously they might have thought that everything needs to be non-Chinese.

From Michael Sanchez
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 6:47 PM
Just to followup on another comments above. I think the 70% of violins that could get sent back to China is only for shops that truly expect nothing but perfection. Keep in mind this sort of ratio is going to be for violins that are priced under $100, and not violins that are retail 2K-3K. I would say if I'm dealing with a good Chinese dealer, I would expect no more than 1/10 of the violins they send me in that price range to be defected. I think though this could easily be 3/10 in some circumstances.

Also, when Chinese instruments are rejected by dealers here in the U.S. (the 70% that I eluded to), I believe the dealer doesn't actually send them back like I said in the article. I believe a large percentage of them gets donated (or even thrown away), and a small percentage are handled in a clearance type setting (this is great practice). Shipping to China is very expensive, so it doesn't make sense for us dealers to spend thousands to send back violins that are going to take months to get, and possibly not even get proper credit.

Here are two things I suggest needs be improved:

1. Dealers are pickier with their selection of violins from China. They are willing to consider a large percentage of violins "duds," and factor this into their overall cost. Because the margins are so great with Chinese violins, this shouldn't be that difficult to do. I'm starting to do it and it is much better to have a happy customer, than have both go through the headache of the return process. Drop-shipping will lead to many headaches unless you know for certain the shop you are working with does the quality control for you.

2. Dealers go to China themselves to hold manufacturers accountable (they monitor progress and/or hand pick violins). If they can't personally go, they hire a representative. Sites like Alibaba are making this process a lot easier as well with inspection 3rd parties.

3. Dealers consider splitting work between "basic" tasks and "skillful" tasks, to improve quality control. This would change the market, as manufacturers would want to keep the business of the dealers, but could gain more business if they do the same process in house. There are easy setup tasks on a violin, while others that need more expert care (to be consistent).

I think it really is on the dealers to change the market place. The worst thing that can happen is that a dealer assumes every violin from their manufacturer to be good, and then they allow the 10%-70% of "duds" to enter the U.S. market. These instruments (in my opinion) should be donated to charity, or sold clearly to the customer as a defected instrument. If this is clearly presented up front, I think some people would appreciate the discount and wouldn't be upset like if they had paid full price. If a $2,500 instrument has a major defect, I think it would make sense to cut the price in half, as maybe the sound quality is still really good. Let me add one more thing that I think needs to be improved.

4. Dealers need to have actual musicians inspecting and doing quality control. I know of wholesale shops where the entire staff doesn't play any musical instruments. How do really know you are dealing with great sounding instruments when your quality control is not handled by an expert player? This is the scenario where the Chinese manufacturer gets lazy, and will send just about anything. Isn't the whole point to be in the business of sending out outstanding instruments that you are able to sell at low prices? If you can't identify that which ones are good/bad based on sound, I believe that shop is contributing to the cause of the problem.

Think about everything I just said and how this would relate to how violins are so cheap on some online websites. Those are the ones that have no quality control what-so-ever, and scenarios where people buy those violins are where I think ultimately people build reputation that I was trying to mend in my original article.

There. I hope I didn't offend anyone, and you can all understand I'm really just trying to help. Maybe this will spark some more great debate and conversation! Love the site!

From Reed Bernstein
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 7:28 PM
This is of course very old news, but the article gets the point across. (I agree that the self promotion tastes a bit off.) Indeed there are so many fantastic Chinese violins these days. In the past 20 years I have watched with some amazement at the ongoing improvements. Shops still have to do a lot of sorting. There have always been good and bad instruments coming from manufacturers, regardless of the country of origin. China is no different. A discerning shop picks and chooses carefully, regardless of brand names or model numbers. And the setup work (bridge, post, fingerboard planing, etc.) is a wild card, because it can vary so radically from one retailer to the next. It is so important to find a shop you can trust. I see a lot of frustration for many people trying to choose wisely, when purchasing a bowed instrument. Comparing brands and model numbers, like one does when purchasing a refrigerator, just doesn't work the same in this business. Country of origin can be an emotional issue for people. The flip side of the Chinese story are all the people spending large sums of money on very mediocre contemporary Italian violins. It's an interesting business! :)
From Paul Deck
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 8:48 PM
I suspect also that resale of a Chinese instrument may be more difficult, but I really don't know. I have a Scott Cao 3/4 size violin (STV 750 model) that I have tried to sell at a price that I believe is quite fair, and not a single nibble. Maybe this price range is just too high for most people for a kid's instrument.
Posted on March 24, 2015 at 10:26 PM
I bought one of the bankruptcy violins from ebay I have tried everything different strings new bow better Rosen new bridge sanded to the right specks. "Now I'm thinking of sanding the varnish off" trying for a better sound ,I'm a guitar player and have been doing quit well learning going on a year an a half. But sometimes it seems all my improvements are helping an other times it still sounds dumpy should I try sanding an using an oil finish so the violin wood can breathe? what are your thoughts on this topic?
From Paul Deck
Posted on March 25, 2015 at 3:44 AM
Sanding the varnish off won't help firewood sound like a violin. A violin can be made to sound more like a violin by learning how to play it properly, though, and lessons from a professional are quite helpful in that regard.
Posted on March 25, 2015 at 11:41 AM
Not all of the Chinese Violins are bad and not all of the foreign violins are good.
In the world of violin sounds the objective judgement was : only good and bad violin, but no one can detect the maker, origin and when it be made (old and new).
Posted on March 25, 2015 at 2:44 PM
I am a HongKonger and I admit that some Chinese violin sounds good and smooth. Actually I have violins made in Chinese and Europe, Chinese one sounds better but it don't last long, I have to do maintenance.

Guess Chinese violin are suitable for learners but not for players who want to use the same violin for a long time. Most important is that Chinese violin don't cost much lol

Posted on March 25, 2015 at 7:54 PM
Michael raises some wonderful points, and he is clearly fond of his selected workshops and their output. My own is mixed, having handled many Chinese instruments for nearly 20 years now. Certainly the quality of making can be astonishing, both in a good and bad way.
I would, however, urge people to look at one or two specific European workshops, who thanks to the Chinese, have really uped their game, and in the case of one new shop come into the market in a refreshing way.
I recently purchased a violin from the new Wessex Violin Co. In England. Off the radar and quite superb for the relatively low price, and a friend of mine recently gone one of the cellos.
In conclusion, yes Chinese is compelling, but don't discount European!
Posted on March 26, 2015 at 9:05 PM
I can vouch for this as well. I bought a beautiful burlwood maple viola and a violin from Old Violin House, a Chinese company that works off of eBay. I didn't pay more than $500 for the viola or the violin, and the only issue I had was a collapsed soundpost on the violin, common of instruments shipped overseas. Both instruments sound great! I couldn't have done better for the price.
From Jeremy Morris
Posted on March 27, 2015 at 9:38 AM
Caveat emptor! I have played on rubbish German factory fiddles and duff Chinese ones, too. How much you are prepared to pay for an instrument is entirely subjective: budget, purpose, value for money and so on. I could buy a table at Ikea on which to eat my dinner. I could also buy a 17th century antique for a hundred times the price of the Ikea table. My dinner will taste just as good. The Ikea will be functional, the antique an investment. I have an excellent-sounding but ugly-looking Chinese viola. It cost me less than I would have to pay for 6 months insurance on my main instrument. I also have other instruments (some prettier!) for which I payed very little, but which are properly set up, with decent strings, bridge etc. These I lend to youngsters who are struggling with VSOs, but who are nevertheless determined to improve. The look on their faces when they play for the first time on a real (albeit budget) instrument is recompense enough.
From Elmer Phillippi
Posted on March 27, 2015 at 1:03 PM
Scott Cao's workshop is in California. He does deal with workshops in China, but he apparently keeps them under close supervision. So I would not include his instruments in the "generic Chinese" list.
From Michael Sanchez
Posted on March 27, 2015 at 11:03 PM
Hey Elmer. That is an interesting comment that I would like to touch on. I do the same thing with quality control here in the states, and many shops out there do the same (like Scott Chao I would imagine). The level a shop does quality control is certainly what makes them have better inventory, but technically any shop would claim to do that to some degree. I don't think it would be fair for everyone that does some sort of quality control (it could be just saying "yes" these violins are fine) to be able to say their violins aren't made in China. I always say my violins are setup here in the United States, but if the customer asks I tell them they are originally in China. Same with the Scott Chao brand I'm sure.
From Gregory Maytan
Posted on March 29, 2015 at 8:28 PM
I really enjoyed this article. I actually have found Chinese violins that have compared well to European/American violins up to $15.000. I have several students that play on Chinese instruments, and I've become quite impressed by these.

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