If you enjoy a good debunking, this one's a doozy. A scientist and contemporary violin maker conducted blind comparisons, getting professional violinists to try and choose among three old Cremonese violins, including two by Stradivari, (total value 10M) and three high-end modern violins (total value 100k). They used a clever blinding protocol:
The results are unsurprising to any decent cynic:
With modified welders’ masks on their faces, to restrict vision, and a dab of scent under the violins’ chin rests, to mask tell-tale odors, the participants got to play compare six violins, including two by Stradivari and one by Guarneri. In an initial test, they quickly compared 10 pairs of violins — nine distinct new-vs.-old pairings and one repeat pair. They got to play each instrument for one minute, without visiting the first instrument played, in a room with neutral acoustics. In a second test, they were allowed to compare and contrast the six instruments in a more natural way, playing them all however they wished, for 20 minutes.
In the head-to-head tests, the players preferred new and old instruments at equal rates, except in one case: One violin by Stradivari, crafted in roughly 1700, was clearly preferred less often than the others. “It seems that under these test conditions, only a conspicuously least-preferred violin differentiates itself,” the authors write. (What’s more, when the violinists compared the same two instruments twice, they made the same choice only 52% of the time.)
In the more leisurely comparison, the same Stradivari model was again voted as worse than the other violins (new or old); four instruments received statistically indistinguishable ratings. This time, however, a distinctly preferred model arose — and it happened to be a new violin.
The story has been received enthusiastically on science and technology sites, and the analogy to high-end wine has been drawn more than once. I don't think that's quite right though. This isn't really like the claim that wine snobs can't really tell plonk from Chateau whatsisface - the new violins themselves cost tens of thousands of dollars each. Indeed, even in this group of six superb violins, there appears to be some degree of agreement at least on the best or worst instruments. Nor is the psychology really related to the rubbish about finding notes of badger and ear-wax in a single-malt; This is about love, not bull-shit. Great musicians fall in love with great instruments they've played with.
But we do need to expand our sense of what a great instrument (and instrument-maker) is. It's remarkable that craftsmen hundreds of years ago could make instruments that can (almost) hold their own against our labs and years of accumulated practice. But clearly there are superb violin-makers today, and the very best might even be better than the Great ones. It seems like a shame for them to not be well-known, and positively wrong to impose upon them the burden of predetermined, unwinnable comparisons with the long-dead. And it's long past time for the audiophile-type magic-fiddle stuff to die.