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Chinese factory student instruments vs. junk


hungrycanine
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I'd appreciate some informed opinion here. I've been looking about at cellos and double basses, and have small experience with violins. I know there are some unbelievably good "deals" for new Chinese-made stringed instruments on the internet, and I have no desire to go there. I'm afraid of the "ebonized" or black fingerboard that wears away in no time or the "solid top" that splits and caves in while the "new" VSO is still shiny as can be. But there are also lots of inexpensive Chinese-made student instruments that are rented out by music shops that provide lessons and -- presumably -- truly wish to introduce the uninitiated to the delights of playing a stringed instrument. (I'm not talking Big Box music stores here whose main objective is profit margin). I've come across some instruments that are unlabelled and made in a Chinese factory and sold to individual music schools/shops in North America to be rented to students who take instruction from the shop. Here's my thinking, and I'd love to be corrected if necessary: Those student-level instruments must be reasonably sturdy and of competent workmanship, given their ultimate market, but they suffer from limited tonal range and the engineering that would ultimately enable virtuoso playing. How could a shop stay in business if it sold the VSO (or cello or bass equivalents) we know can be had "for a song" on-line? No matter what the instrument, a proper set-up is required and I would think these rental instruments must be decently enough made to enable a reasonable set-up, though obviously not one that might suit a professional's needs.        No doubt, these entry-level instruments wouldn't have much resale value and would not be worth putting additional money into repairs, but shouldn't they be thought of differently than those frightening VSOs that pop up on your computer once you Google "violin"? Does a beginner really HAVE to start with a $2000-2500 double bass or cello if Chinese factory instruments are available for much less from reputable music schools/shops?        

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OK, since no-one else here who knows anything is going to speak up, I guess you're stuck with my view of the situation.  The music shops that you refer to (along with a number of more reputable dealers, if that's not an oxymoron, and quite a few makers) have wholesale sweetheart deals either directly with the manufacturers (often for custom production), or with distributors who charge well below retail.  The firms that follow this model buy in large quantities.  None of the people that the trade buys from are going to do business with you, or else will charge you retail prices.

You're screwed.  Any questions?  :lol:

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Before starting cello several years ago, I did a lot of research in the online cello community. Conventional wisdom is that a decent beginner cello costs about $1000, not including bow or case (which can get you to $2000 pretty quick). This assumes buying retail from a dealer that actually knows something about bowed strings.

It's generally recommended that a beginner rent an instrument to start. As it appears to be much easier to buy a cello than to sell one, this seems pretty good advice. 

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13 hours ago, Violadamore said:

The firms that follow this model buy in large quantities.  None of the people that the trade buys from are going to do business with you, or else will charge you retail prices.

You're screwed.  

I have done some trading with Chinese suppliers over the years, smaller quantities and full container-loads. My experience is not regarding musical instruments thou, but I have no reason to believe that this industry would be very different form any other.

And my experience is this, and also what makes it hard to build any long-term business with a chinese supplier:  
They will sell anything to anyone, in any quantity  (within reason) for the same price as they give to a loyal long-term customer. 

 

Quote

Does a beginner really HAVE to start with a $2000-2500 double bass or cello

That depends on the markup-% on the instrument :):) 

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59 minutes ago, Stavanger said:

I have done some trading with Chinese suppliers over the years, smaller quantities and full container-loads. My experience is not regarding musical instruments thou, but I have no reason to believe that this industry would be very different form any other.

And my experience is this, and also what makes it hard to build any long-term business with a chinese supplier:  
They will sell anything to anyone, in any quantity  (within reason) for the same price as they give to a loyal long-term customer. 
 

The OP was asking about how to get higher-quality instruments out of them for very low prices, and I stand by what I said.  The dealers who get the best stuff at lowest cost (whether from China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Eastern Europe, or wherever) in any market, travel there, tour factories and workshops, and enter into contractual relationships with their suppliers.  Those who don't go quite that far work through in-country representatives, again, on a contractual basis.  Either way, it costs money to arrange.  Some really large concerns get a local national as a partner and start their own factories, but that's really capital-intensive.

Of course, some of us have managed to locate friends in low places through previous globetrotting.  :ph34r::lol:

The distributors on this side of the ocean that I was referring to (who have done what I said above, then screen out the rubbish and provide guarantees and customer service) insist on a copy of a business license and large minimum orders to get wholesale rates.  Working hit-or-miss through eBay, Ali, or such can get you some reduction in cost, but it's playing roulette for most people.  Go read through all the bitching at Sword Buyer's Guide or right here on The Auction Scroll for a sample of horror stories.

BTW, my experience of what makes it hard to work with foreign suppliers you've never met is that a majority of the people claiming to own workshops are really third-party middlemen who lie like rugs about it.  In this 21st. Century global economy, with the current ease of electronic conferencing, it's best to "keep your friends close, and your enemies suppliers closer".  Oh, and be very multilingual.

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Thanks for the responses, but I'm not sure I understand things any better. Keep trying -- I'm slow, but usually get it sooner or later.  So if a shop that exists largely by providing lessons but also rents/sales instruments on which to learn has already DONE all that ground work connecting with a Chinese supplier (whether s/he is a middleman or a producer), and wants to provide students with limited but playable instruments, wouldn't spending, say, $1500 on a cello or double bass at THAT shop be better than spending the same $1500 on an instrument that comes from a source that wants to sell you an instrument and never see you again? And if the shop has some used rental instruments they want to sell, wouldn't it be reasonable to think your dollar would go farther there? For one thing, that might be a way an individual buyer could get some of the benefit of the shop having already bought at larger-volume prices. I've just read so much (often on this site) about complete rubbish on EBay or on-line that cracks or splits or comes unglued or fingerboards wear away in front of your eyes that I'm extremely wary of "Chinese" factory instruments. Nevertheless, a lot of people seem to be content with SOME of them for initial learning. 

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2 hours ago, Stavanger said:

^^ Sounds like we mostly agree - but we could keep going as I think we both like to have the final word :lol::lol:

OK, have it your way.  Perhaps the OP has enough funds, stringed instrument savvy, business acumen, and fluency in Mandarin to buy a shipload from Fengling, or the existing business to get listed with Howard Core.  I just got the impression from his post that he'd be better off buying a single item from a good shop.

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1 minute ago, hungrycanine said:

Thanks for the responses, but I'm not sure I understand things any better. Keep trying -- I'm slow, but usually get it sooner or later.  So if a shop that exists largely by providing lessons but also rents/sales instruments on which to learn has already DONE all that ground work connecting with a Chinese supplier (whether s/he is a middleman or a producer), and wants to provide students with limited but playable instruments, wouldn't spending, say, $1500 on a cello or double bass at THAT shop be better than spending the same $1500 on an instrument that comes from a source that wants to sell you an instrument and never see you again? And if the shop has some used rental instruments they want to sell, wouldn't it be reasonable to think your dollar would go farther there? For one thing, that might be a way an individual buyer could get some of the benefit of the shop having already bought at larger-volume prices. I've just read so much (often on this site) about complete rubbish on EBay or on-line that cracks or splits or comes unglued or fingerboards wear away in front of your eyes that I'm extremely wary of "Chinese" factory instruments. Nevertheless, a lot of people seem to be content with SOME of them for initial learning. 

You've got the general idea.  Buying online is a gamble because you can't see the instrument before you get it, and you don't know the players involved.  Part of the fun is that buying stuff in quantity, even at best, can run around 10% defective.  The importer cherry-picks what he got sent and assigns prices, giving stuff that failed spec to charity, relegating it to "scratch-and-dent" sales, selling it on eBay, dumping it and writing it off their taxes, etc.  The brick-and-mortars will also usually do set up on things that need it.

There's nothing wrong with Chinese instruments per se anymore, but they're not all made to the same standard.  The factories over there will ship you what you ask for, as long as they profit by it.  Part of the current situation is that some resellers ask for crap, pay for crap, receive crap, and then sell it as gold, and the producers get blamed.

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I appreciate VdA bringing a realistic perspective. It is possible to get stupid lucky. Once - Once only - I brought a fiddle in from an outfit in China. I have no idea to this day if it were a real factory or a third party slinger. $450 shipped. New post, new bridge, a little work on the string nut, some real strings, then we put it up blind against a couple of modern Italians and an old Tyrolean with some good players with great bows, and it came in second. I still have it. 

Next one I ordered from the same guy, I could t make it sound like anything other than a tissue box. When I reached out, I never heard back. Sure wish I spoke Mandarin.

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It sounds as if buying a Chinese instrument from a shop that primarily exists to offer lessons DOES offer some advantage then. Most of the helpful cautions here -- about gambles, % of defective goods in a large purchase, cherry-picking, etc, and one darn good deal at $450 vs one untraceable tissue box -- would disappear (or at least recede....) if the buyer was able to play the individual instrument for sale. The possibility of the neck breaking, the top splitting, the pegs needing to be refitted, or the fingerboard disintegrating in the first 12 months could be far less for a Chinese factory instrument if purchased through a teaching shop/music academy sort of place than if purchased on-line or at a big box music store.  As Violadamore says, there's nothing wrong with Chinese instruments per se anymore, but purchasing a new or used Chinese factory instrument through a business that mainly provides lessons and offers its students some reliable student instruments might be a good way to economize without getting burned by the imploding tissue box!      Thanks for the thoughts. Yes, I expected the opinions to be opinionated.... :)

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I have tried to find the lest expensive rental instruments that I can sell with a straight face and which can be properly set up and maintained as necessary. I buy name brand stuff and for cellos with a decent carbon fiber bow and a good heavy foam bag am pricing them at $2,800. If I could find instruments that I could sell cheaper and still stand behind I would do it. I always recommend people rent first and since they can use up to 1/2 the value of the instrument as a credit toward the purchase it works as a no interest finance plan and if they decide to quit their investment is limited. Lots of happy customers and I do OK on the deal. Less expensive no name instruments often have some seemingly small problems that can actually make them unplayable and add hundreds to the cost.

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I'm receiving my "lottery ticket" (cheap 1/4 size cello for my son) tomorrow. Ordered b-stock (cosmetic blemishes we were said) from UK store 195EUR with bow and hard foam case. It's actually one of the cheapest sets on the market with presumably pressed spuce top and basswood back... We will see. Our music teacher told us that for kids the pressed is OK.... I tried to find something solid for similar money but no way in kids sizes....

I'll refer when we receive it and I will try it.

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From the non-expert side of the fence, as someone who often thinks about buying a violin or bow, and occasionally does, it sounds like a question I have asked myself--'what are the chances of getting a bargain if I pay below well retail price?' I suspect chances of getting 'lucky' online are confined to buyers with considerable expertise and patience. Even with the instrument in your hands it is hard to predict how it will respond with good setup and a couple of years' playing.

I long thought the supposedly worthless 1930s violin I grew up with proved that you can find a lovely instrument for next to nothing. It was a disappointment to learn that it would retail for several thousand.

As for the "lottery ticket" cello, is it? You can have a high degree of confidence of ending up with a Euro195 cello, which is way better than a losing lottery ticket, though the chances of winning big may be close to zero.

Now I seek, and may soon buy, an instrument using the best materials and workmanship I can afford, pleasing to the eye and reasonably damage-free, at a fair price: no premiums for celebrity makers, or ludicrously low prices for poorly marketed Chinese geniuses who work for pennies.

 

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Here is my evaluation...

The cello had just small dent under tailpiece (from fine tuners). For the 195E+19E postage I got

- hard foam case with wheels of decent quality (typically value around 100E)

- padded gigbag - this was extra - not even mention in description ( value of approx 30E)

- bow of dark exotic wood and ebony frog with decent workmanship and hair (value of approx 50E ?)

- resin and extra bridge of decent maple good cut (value ???)

The cello is pressed with blackened hardwood fittings and aluminum tailpiece with fine tuners. Bridge is not perfectly fitted (I will redo it - what is your recommended string height for 1/4 cello?) but the sound is good on all strings and easy to pull even with fresh bow that barely has any rosin on hair. Plays OK even without any setup, I just put the bridge on and tuned up.

Looks like I got my money worth of accesories and a free cello as a bonus for my kid. LOL!

Talk about lottery tickets :-)))))))

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4 hours ago, HoGo said:

Here is my evaluation...

The cello had just small dent under tailpiece (from fine tuners). For the 195E+19E postage I got

- hard foam case with wheels of decent quality (typically value around 100E)

- padded gigbag - this was extra - not even mention in description ( value of approx 30E)

- bow of dark exotic wood and ebony frog with decent workmanship and hair (value of approx 50E ?)

- resin and extra bridge of decent maple good cut (value ???)

The cello is pressed with blackened hardwood fittings and aluminum tailpiece with fine tuners. Bridge is not perfectly fitted (I will redo it - what is your recommended string height for 1/4 cello?) but the sound is good on all strings and easy to pull even with fresh bow that barely has any rosin on hair. Plays OK even without any setup, I just put the bridge on and tuned up.

Looks like I got my money worth of accesories and a free cello as a bonus for my kid. LOL!

Talk about lottery tickets :-)))))))

Congratulations!  I wasn't going to confuse anyone by tossing it in here, but my experience of Chinese cellos (I got one a few years ago to practice set-up on) was similar (plays as well as a vintage German I spent more on), and the supplier threw in a free viola (lovely wood and finish, excellent tone, and no plywood there) as a bonus. 

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I did some more adjustment yesterday, today is my son's first lesson :-)

I must add that even though the fittings  are just black stained maple, the pegs work surprisingly well. I thought the board will be just perfectly straight along and strings will buzz when set  bit lower but I found there was decent curvature along the board to clear the vibrating strings, I just added a bit scoop under the C string, that could use more curve. Also deepened the nut slots and reshaped the ends of nut as it was basically bar with rounded ends and strings 1mm above board. I fitted the bridge feet better and now it's ready to be  abused, errrr, played by the youngster... :-)

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@HoGo As an experienced (12 years almost full time) Cello teacher for the age we are talking about, I would like to give you some advise for your childs benefit. I do believe that a 1/4 Cello can be had cheaply and still work, but Setup is very important and often misunderstood, even by experienced lutiers. A 1/4 Cello should not be simply a downsized 4/4 Cello. Children are not only much smaller, they are also much more flexible, their fingers usually relatively thick for the length they have. Theis legs are often short, relative to their Body size, which means the Cello will be at a different angle when played, usually straigher, which makes it harder to let arm weight into the string. So you want an Ultra light Action for both Hands, so that from the start the Kids can Play without tensing up. The bow Needs to be very light but with good hair, but ideally it should be less than on a larger bow, it helps with string Response. The strings Need to respond extremely well. What feels ok to an adult in many cases is not ok for a child, it will cost too much effort for the child to have fun playing it. For example, most 1/4 size bows are simply too heavy (often the stick is Shorter, but the head and sometimes frog are just as big as on a full size bow), in my opinion, and this can hamper the students development for years, even after changing to the next Instrument, because the kid will learn to grab the bow too tightly, to unlearn this takes a lot of discipline. Because the bow is light and children don't have a lot of arm weight, the string Response must be very good, but also the string clearance off the fingerboard can be a lot smaller, because the string will not touch the fingerboard as readily as it does with full sized cellos. The strings need to be very good on a 1/4 Cello, and there is a lot of rubbish around, even from very good Brands. Larsen sets for 1/4 Cellos for instance, have very problematic a and d strings, Response wise. The best strings I know for 1/4 Cellos are without any doubt Helicores, nothing else even Comes Close.The larger the Cello, the larger the variety of strings that work.

So what I'd do for achieving an optimal 1/4 size Cello Setup is buy Helicores, with those on see how low you can go with the string clearance and adapt the Bridge accordingly, and then find a bow for it that is light, especially at the tip, but nonetheless makes the string respond without putting any extra weight into the string.

I wish your child happy playing!

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2 hours ago, baroquecello said:

@HoGo As an experienced (12 years almost full time) Cello teacher for the age we are talking about, I would like to give you some advise for your childs benefit. I do believe that a 1/4 Cello can be had cheaply and still work, but Setup is very important and often misunderstood, even by experienced lutiers. A 1/4 Cello should not be simply a downsized 4/4 Cello. Children are not only much smaller, they are also much more flexible, their fingers usually relatively thick for the length they have. Theis legs are often short, relative to their Body size, which means the Cello will be at a different angle when played, usually straigher, which makes it harder to let arm weight into the string. So you want an Ultra light Action for both Hands, so that from the start the Kids can Play without tensing up. The bow Needs to be very light but with good hair, but ideally it should be less than on a larger bow, it helps with string Response. The strings Need to respond extremely well. What feels ok to an adult in many cases is not ok for a child, it will cost too much effort for the child to have fun playing it. For example, most 1/4 size bows are simply too heavy (often the stick is Shorter, but the head and sometimes frog are just as big as on a full size bow), in my opinion, and this can hamper the students development for years, even after changing to the next Instrument, because the kid will learn to grab the bow too tightly, to unlearn this takes a lot of discipline. Because the bow is light and children don't have a lot of arm weight, the string Response must be very good, but also the string clearance off the fingerboard can be a lot smaller, because the string will not touch the fingerboard as readily as it does with full sized cellos. The strings need to be very good on a 1/4 Cello, and there is a lot of rubbish around, even from very good Brands. Larsen sets for 1/4 Cellos for instance, have very problematic a and d strings, Response wise. The best strings I know for 1/4 Cellos are without any doubt Helicores, nothing else even Comes Close.The larger the Cello, the larger the variety of strings that work.

So what I'd do for achieving an optimal 1/4 size Cello Setup is buy Helicores, with those on see how low you can go with the string clearance and adapt the Bridge accordingly, and then find a bow for it that is light, especially at the tip, but nonetheless makes the string respond without putting any extra weight into the string.

I wish your child happy playing!

Thanks for tips! Currently the setup is approx. 3,5mm to 5,5mm at end of fingerboard and 0,2-0,3mm at nut. The fingerboard "relief" is approx. 2mm I guess that could be ballpark value for those floppy strings. All strings play cleanly so I could possibly go even lower.

I have no idea about weigth of the bow. How much is ideal?

Strings respond very well, the low C perhaps a bit less so, but on this size the tension is extremely low.

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