18 starter violin outfits—bow and case included—that cost $1,500 or less
By Heather K. Scott
Students first learning the violin often start with a school fiddle or a rental from the local music shop. Parents and teachers alike know that these early days will foretell the student’s future musical career. Will he learn to practice? Will she develop the discipline and desire to continue to play? If the answer is yes, most teachers will suggest purchasing that first violin, an exciting step for young musicians. I can remember the thrill of picking out my first instrument. My parents drove me to the nearest stringed-instrument dealer and we spent the day with the shopkeeper, sorting through instruments and testing each one for sound and playability. They were supportive of this first step in my musical career, but the three of us knew little about the process of choosing the best instrument for my needs. We ended up with a great outfit, one that I still have today. But looking back, I wish we’d had more help—that heavily varnished, shiny instrument I chose has lost much of the warmth and easy playability it once had.
As a Strings reader you are probably a teacher or stringed-instrument advocate. We encourage you to pass along this article to your students and to parents whose children are in the market for their first student violin. Or you may be an adult starting to play the violin in your free time. Either way, this listing of violin outfits, along with the help of a knowledgeable shop owner, will ensure finding a first violin that best fits your needs or those of your child or student.
All the outfits under review—each includes violin, bow, and case—have qualities we feel confident recommending to the early student. After surveying more than 40 international stringed-instrument dealers, musicians, and industry professionals, we used their suggestions, and our own resources, to identify readily available outfits priced under $1,500. With the help of Bobbi Nikles, a private violin teacher, and Phoebe Dong and Robert Ness, public school string teachers, as well as our editorial colleagues Teja Gerken, Paul Kotapish, and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown, we evaluated each outfit.
Our team studied sound and tone, setup and playability, quality of varnish, and overall craftsmanship. We looked at the consistency of the entire outfit, assessing whether the quality of the bow and case matched that of the violin. The reviewers pointed out the strong and weak points of each instrument, identifying those they would recommend to their own students.
We did not concern ourselves overmuch with accessories and fittings such as chin rests, tailpieces, and fine tuners. These are easily, and cheaply, replaceable, so inconsistent quality needn’t be a deterrent. Keep your eyes on the fiddle itself, then consider the bow and case, and finally look at the fittings and accessories. A new set of strings, pegs, and fittings on higher-priced student violins might be a worthwhile expense and could make an otherwise good-sounding and good-looking instrument even better.
Before you begin your search for that first violin, look around your local shops and visit area dealers and makers. Choosing where you purchase your new instrument is just as important as choosing the outfit itself. Buying from a maker or shop equipped to provide you with unbiased, expert advice as well as reputable instrument repair and maintenance will alleviate many setup problems.
Also remember that you are starting at the beginner’s end of the scale: none of these instruments is going to compare with a custom-made bench violin. In your own search—as in our review—it is best to compare apples to apples.
Take some time with your student or child to visit the shops where you are most comfortable. If you are shopping for yourself, think about hiring your teacher or inviting a violinist friend to accompany you and help evaluate your options. You should know that some teachers receive a commission payment from certain dealers, or make it known that they receive commissions from shops. Knowing your teacher’s practice will be helpful when considering his or her advice.
Henry Riedstra, who owns The Violin Shop in Kitchener, Ontario, suggests visiting a violin dealer or shop that has one or more knowledgeable makers on staff. An experienced luthier, restorer, and player is far more equipped to help you and your child than a part-time store employee. Riedstra suggests actively involving the staff member in the student’s shopping experience—good advice for an adult beginner as well. “Be sure to ask the shop person to play each instrument for you, as well as having your son or daughter play them. This way even an inexperienced ear will pick out the sound that is the best in the price range you can afford. You should also ask your son or daughter and the shop player to comment on the ease of response, as well as the quality of sound across all strings.”
Many dealers have practice rooms available. Take in two to three instruments at a time and play the same piece of music on each. Whether you play just a basic G-major, two-octave scale, a short jig or reel, or a few bars of your favorite piece, playing consistent musical passages on each instrument will make it much easier to draw comparisons. Some dealers will even offer overnight loans of your favorite instruments. Remember to take breaks between your shopping trips, since trying too many instruments in one sitting will do nothing but confuse and frustrate you. Limit yourself to a handful of instruments and be sure to bring paper and pen to take notes. You may find it useful to create a shopping list of the qualities you seek in a violin.
We were only able to sample one or two instruments from each maker, and are reminded by Henry Hultquist, who owns The Violin Shop in Lincoln, Nebraska, that make and model number are not always a true indicator of what to expect in sound and playability, especially with student instruments. You may wish to try the same brand and model violin at several different shops, to test for sound variance. “If you take six violins [with the same model number and from the same company or maker], there will be a noticeable difference in sound among them—sometimes a dramatic difference.” Hultquist adds, “It should be noted that the same violin ‘shell’ may be sold under a variety of brand names.”
Brand names also carry a price tag. Some companies’ reputations garner a higher price that does not necessarily reflect accurately upon the instrument’s value. Dealer Henry Riedstra says, “People think the more one pays for the outfit, the better the sound. But that’s not always the case.” Kyozo Watanabe, owner of Cremona Violin Shop, in Los Angeles, California, adds, “I have seen so many customers, and several teachers, buying instruments by brand name alone, and this leads to dangerous situations for the student.”
The moral? Evaluate the violins you test carefully, and listen to your own opinion. With a little homework and research, the violin you find now will provide years of musical enjoyment. And the discipline and self-awareness you bring to your search may come in handy the next time you’re making a large purchase—be it a car, a home, or that next violin.
What to Look for When Buying That First Violin
You should be able to move from string to string freely with an even tone across the strings.
- Tone and Sound
Are you looking for a violin with a warm upper register or do you prefer a bright sound in the higher strings? Check for any buzzing as you play and be sure that you are getting the projection and tone that you desire.
- Price Does it fit your budget?
Be sure the quality of the violin and outfit your are buying match the price tag attached. Ask teachers you trust, as well as fellow students, where they purchased their instruments and how much they paid.
Is the finish sprayed or brushed? Is the top hand carved or factory pressed? The craftsmanship of the violin contributes greatly to the instrument’s quality and potential resale value.
Do the pegs, chinrest, bridge, and strings fit well? You should be able to play each string clearly without brushing against other strings—if not it could mean your bridge or fingerboard need adjustment. Do the pegs feel tight? Is the neck set at the correct angle? You should be able to press each string all the way down at the part of the fingerboard nearest the bridge. Your shop can take care of this problem—be sure to address it before you leave with a new instrument.
- The Package
Is the quality consistent across the board? Check the quality of the bow (look for pernambuco bows with true horsehair, not fiberglass bows with synthetic hair). Is the case going to protect your instrument? Some dealers are open to mixing and matching their outfit options. You may find that you can purchase a better bow and safer case for the same price, or a just fraction more.
- The Dealer or Shop
Check with friends, fellow musicians, and your teacher about where they like to shop for instruments and accessories. Be sure to ask about trade-ins and trade-up policies. Some shops selling starter fiddles will buy back instruments and direct part of that cost to your purchase of a step-up violin.
Some teachers are given percentages of instrument sales from their local dealers, often as much as ten percent of the price of each instrument they recommend to their students. Many teachers put a lot of effort into helping students. Search for a new instrument, and some either ask students up front for a fee for their time, or make it known that they receive commissions from shops. But teachers who keep the practice quiet are more common thatn you might think.
Be sure you are purchasing a violin based on good advice from a teacher, fellow player, or reliable dealer. Do research on the Internet. Make notes. Decide what price range you are going to work with, and stick with it. Dealers can be very persuasive, and there are, as one dealer pointed out to us, many instruments that may look impressive but sound dull and flat, and carry a hefty price tag.
18 Outfits under $1,500
For a beginning student, the Stentor Conservatoire ($299) provides a stalwart and reliable starter fiddle. The craftsmanship, although clumsy in spots (thick varnish, rough carving on the scroll and f-holes, and slightly inconsistent purfling), doesn’t detract from the sound of the violin. We detected slight wolf tones but found this instrument very playable, with a warm, balanced tone. Replacing the chin rest and tailpiece would enhance the look and feel of the violin tremendously, and could be done cheaply. If you know of a student looking for an inexpensive violin, this is a good outfit.
Although the projection seemed muted and the tone pinched, the Cremona SV-220 Violin(Saga Musical Instruments, $395) scored high points for playability. For the price tag, this instrument has great potential and with better fittings could easily become a fine-looking and -sounding instrument for students in their first year. Much like the Conservatoire outfit, we recommend this package for beginning students who will undoubtedly put their instruments through the rigors of youthful playing. Any parent purchasing this outfit will have the security of knowing this is a sturdy fiddle, and one that didn’t cost too much.
The violins from Wm. Lewis & Son are often a favorite among many students. The company has all of its instruments initially adjusted at its Ohio facility to meet MENC compliance—making for easy tuning and great quality setup. The Orchestra WL80E ($705) violin outfit includes rosin, a Glasser fiberglass bow with synthetic hair and plastic grip, and is packaged in a heavy-duty, thermoplastic case.
This Artist Violin from String Works ($810) displayed good playability and a bright, rich tone. Our reviewers were drawn to the exceptional quality of this particular setup, noting the rosewood fittings and well-adjusted pegs. Dong and Ness didn’t care for the varnish on the violin neck, but Nikles liked the chocolate-caramel color and the glossy appearance, describing the look as “well-articulated and very attractive.” The pernambuco bow is set apart by its silver wrap and snakeskin thumb padding. The review team agreed that this instrument is not only visually appealing, but possesses a solid sound and a colorful tone.
“It feels fine,” one judge reported of the Theo Kreutz violin from Horn & Son ($825). But despite the smooth touch, we found some minor setup problems; in particular, the instrument we reviewed had an unusually fat bridge that tended to slide (although it would be easy to replace it). The pegs, however, had far better movement than those on many of the other instruments in our review. A basic fiberglass bow and a straightforward case complete the outfit. Our reviewers felt the craftsmanship, tone, and playability of this violin were all very good. For a student looking for an advanced fiddle, the Theo Kreutz offers a mature-sounding instrument.
We were surprised by this violin outfit, in part due to its sweet tone—the Angel CA01AT ($1,200)—produced a huge, well-developed sound with very little effort. The distressed antique finish is rough, but the overall craftsmanship of the violin is good. The fittings are especially interesting, with a tailpiece featuring a vintage-style, bas-relief cherub. With an E-string fine tuner, a suspension case, and a pernambuco bow, this is a nicely matched outfit. Each of our teacher reviewers agreed that it is an exceptional choice for students because of its intriguing appearance and expensive-sounding tone.
This Albert Lee 2000 violin (Casa Del Sol from Johnson String Instruments; $1,200) projects well and plays with a vivid, full timbre. We liked the eye-catching craftsmanship but noticed a couple flaws in the varnish. The thick pernambuco bow has an easy responsiveness and produced first-rate sound. Our reviewers felt the basic case provided was a cut below the instrument, and not very well matched to the outfit. (However, purchasers may be able to choose a different case.) This violin’s volume, attractive appearance, effortless playability, and projection scored high points.
Excellent playability, mellow tone, subtle response, and dynamic projection made this outfit (Andreas Eastman VL305ST, Eastman Strings, $1,256) a definitive favorite with our review team. We detected a slight buzz, but this is probably an anomaly singular to this instrument and not a characteristic of Eastman’s violins in general (on occasion, buzzes can occur in any violin). The setup proved better than that of many of the other violins we looked at, the pegs worked smoothly and easily, and the striking antique look and rich, dark-red varnish won high praise. The one-piece, flamed maple back and the boxwood-and-ebony fittings displayed exceptional craftsmanship. And the Eastman pernambuco bow, with its imitation whalebone winding, has an effortless response and produces a refined sound. We are confident recommending the Eastman violin to the advanced student as well as the promising beginner—the violin is one of the best higher-priced models we evaluated and its quality far that of some instruments at comparable prices.
“This really feels like a step-up and not a beginner instrument,” said Nikles of the Meisel Mittenwald. Described best as an intermediate student model rather than a starter, this Mittenwald Model A (Meisel Stringed Instruments, $1,29) had a smooth sound and good-looking varnish that pleased us all. Our judges found it very playable, with a clear and voluminous tone. The quality Meisel case (hygrometer, string tube, padded handle) garnered high marks, and our reviewers felt that craftsmanship and sound are this outfit’s strong points. The Mittenwald could easily fulfill the needs of a junior-high or high-school string player.
This Scherl & Roth R301E4L violin ($1,305) has a nice, even feel, noted one of our teacher reviewers. The sound was rated good to excellent, with depth and clarity on the first three strings, but a slightly whispery G string. The varnish was heavy for our tastes but didn’t seem to harm the overall tone and projection. The outfit comes with a brazilwood bow that is heavy but plays well. Although the soft bridge, lack of an E-string tuner, and tight pegs were frustrating, this instrument was more playable than many of the other violins we assessed. The strong point of the R301E4L violin is its deep, well-rounded sound and graceful playability.
This darker-sounding Shar OF 500 violin ($1,370) tended to be shrill and harsh in the upper register but became robust and deep in the lower strings. The instrument was set up properly to ensure easy tuning, a point in its favor. A high-quality pernambuco bow and Heritage IV suspension case (with hygrometer, instrument blanket, string tube) round out the Shar outfit. The strong points of this violin are the bold sound in the bottom register, the professional setup, and an accessory package that includes rosin and a humidifier.
This Karl Willhelm 2000 violin (from Woodwind & Brasswind, $1,377) offers a unique opportunity for those players seeking out a violin outfit: you can mix and match a bow and case to fit your needs and pocketbook. We reviewed the Londoner One Star bow and the Bellafina model 500 case for this review. The tone carried exceptionally well in this violin, giving it a powerful sound. We also like the antiqued oil varnish and flaming.
If we were handing out awards, this Caprice violin (Potter’s Violins, $1,450) would take the blue ribbon for Best Tone. It possessed the most focused sound and even tone of all the instruments we reviewed. “Great responsiveness, and what a big, sweet sound,” remarked Dong and Ness. Although the pegs stuck at first, they became manageable after a few minutes of working them, and they held tune well. The violin boasts an unusual varnish color, with hints of red, green, and blond highlights across the belly. The craftsmanship and wood quality are high, and the carving refined. The cleverly designed Meisel case is a modified oblong with two corners rounded off. This apple-slice shape offers very compact protection. The package won kudos from our review team and could easily take a student through several years with a youth orchestra.
Knilling, a division of St. Louis Music Co., is one of the largest suppliers of student-level instruments in the world, and with good reason. The company produces a great product. The outfit we reviewed included the 30GM violin ($1,495) with a rusty-orange antiqued varnish and gold-accented fittings, a high-quality case (four bow spinners, string tube, instrument blanket), and an exceptional bow (a pernambuco bow made in Germany, by K. Mueller). We were impressed with Knilling’s smooth sound and clear projection and our reviewers found they could fluctuate between dynamics with very little effort.
This outfit from Mark Edwards (the HC602 Toussaud; imported by Howard Core Co.; $1,495) earned high praise from our reviewers and staff. The playability is superb, projecting well and not taking much effort to elicit response. The tone also caught our attention with a balanced and unclouded sound, with each note having a resonant core. The wood is light and thinner on top, with a one-piece back and slick, red varnish with blond highlights. The pernambuco bow felt light and rather stiff but should open up with use. The violin and bow rest in a Bobelock suspension case with a hygrometer. The well-matched package revolves around an advanced-sounding violin with first-rate playability and craftsmanship. Our reviewers had a hard time choosing just one strong point for this instrument and ranked it as one of the best violins we reviewed.
Receiving high praise for good looks, this violin sported some exceptional carving work. The (JR Music, $1,499) is very playable, although it didn’t deliver as much volume in the upper register as some other models. A different set of strings or an alternate bridge might improve this. The clean craftsmanship is enhanced by the rich varnish work, including some subtle antiquing. We did not care for the carbon-fiber bow, which felt heavy and unbalanced when we tested it. But be sure to check with JR Music, or your dealer, for other bow options. This violin’s unusual appearance and powerful lower register are its strong points. (At press time JR Music just finished designing a new case—pictured here is an older model.)
The quality of the STV-850 (Scott Cao Violins, $1,499) made from top-grade European woods (including Italian spruce and maple from Bosnia), ranked high with our review team. The sound is complex, with good projection and a lush tone. The instrument is well set up and holds its tuning better than many of the others we tried. The craftsmanship is superior, although the varnish is almost orange and heavy in spots. The fittings were unusually refined for an instrument in this price range. We recommend this as a good investment if you’re looking for a workshop instrument with the price tag of a factory-made model.
This Heinrich Gill No. 54 violin ($1,500) turned out to be a beautiful instrument. Although it felt stiff at first, it produced a round tone and a clear sound once the reviewer and instrument were properly warmed up. The noteworthy points of this fiddle are its exceptional projection and the tawny-colored finish. A high-scoring outfit, our review team felt the tone, craftsmanship, and volume/projection offered in the No. 54 violin made this one of the best-bet packages.
There are several reputable companies that sell violins separately for those players looking to mix and match their own outfits. If you have a broader budget to work with and would like to choose your own bow and case, here are some additional options.
Glaesel has all of its instruments shop adjusted and offers a full line of violins for students of all levels. This violin ($1,450) is made of European tonewoods and comes with a brazilwood bow and the GL-5046 Glaesel case. Glaesel has also just released a new Suzuki student violin outfit, model VI502EC. Check www.glaesel.com for additional information.
We also looked at the Harald Lorenz violin from Geneva Instruments ($1,200) which sells separately and not in an outfit. But for a student assembling his or her own kit, Geneva Instruments offers a number or good-quality instruments at affordable prices. The violin we reviewed had a flamed maple back, spruce top, and ebony fittings with silver diamond accents.