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New York Times

It's a foregone conclusion in the violin world: The best violins were made 300 years ago by Italian masters like Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù.

Sure, there are excellent modern violins, but convention has it that the sound of a $50,000 modern instrument cannot compare to the magic of a Stradivarius worth millions.

Researchers looking into this belief beg to differ. In a new study, they report that internationally accomplished violinists could not distinguish between old and new in a blind playoff, and that many chose a new instrument as their favorite.

"There's this caricature that new violins are too loud, too ear-piercing," said Claudia Fritz, a music researcher at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, who led the study. "This study shows that there is no truth behind it."

For the new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, there were 12 instruments, six old and six new, with new ones "antiqued" to appear older. The violinists, 10 professional soloists, had 75 minutes in a rehearsal room and 75 minutes in a 300-seat concert hall, both in Paris. They used their own bows, compared the test violins with their own, and could choose to have a listener provide feedback, and to have a piano accompanist. At one point, an orchestra accompanied them.

Six soloists chose a new violin for a theoretical concert tour. The soloists rated new violins higher, on average, for playability, articulation and projection.

And their guesses of which violins were new or old were no better than chance, the study said.