It’s not easy buying a violin – most players, professional or amateur, are obsessed with the search for a magical instrument. Until recently a violin could only be bought in a shop or face to face, but now there’s a significant parallel economy in the form of internet sites and eBay.
Obviously shops have some advantages while web-based sellers offer others. Some people will never buy anything online (particularly a violin), others buy almost everything online (including a violin).
A violin is primarily a tool for producing sound, but it’s also a work of extreme craftsmanship, and a type of currency, particularly if it’s also an antique. Violin dealers are generally less interested in the sound than in the maker’s reputation, the workmanship and the investment value – the retail or auction room price rarely has much to do with the sound.
When it comes to buying online, workmanship is reasonably easy to assess – detailed photographs give a great deal of information. As for value, there are various ways of corroborating this, and there’s a lot of information online. If a dealer says a label’s authentic (violin by and labeled etc.) then the dealer is liable under law, and this protects the buyer; if there’s no such assurance, then it’s normal to assume that a label’s fake or irrelevant. A good 90% of violin labels are fake or spurious, with an even higher percentage on eBay – sellers use characteristic wording like “a label which I have no reason to suppose is anything other than completely genuine”!
But most players are mainly interested in sound, and this is pretty much impossible to quantify except by playing. Fiddle players tend to be looking for very different things from classical violinists, and ensemble players want a very different sound from soloists. Extroverts like one thing, introverts another etc, etc …
It doesn’t help to hear a soundfile since the most important factor is always how it sounds under the player’s chin, not through a microphone. Microphones vary enormously in frequency response, and no two rooms have the same acoustic … plus it’s the easiest thing in the world to doctor the sound post-recording.
Every player has their own agenda, and the spectrum of “acceptable tone” in violins is immense. Of course this personal response is less cut and dried than most players think, and their experience of the sound of a violin is heavily distorted by the look and feel of an instrument, and by its perceived value. For some players, a violin has to cost a lot before it can possibly sound good; for others, they will embrace the sound characteristics of a vile and battered old wreck because it’s a bargain!