[Long-winded introductions in blog posts are crafted to keep you on the page long enough to boost the article's google rankings - so let's skip that and tell you what you came here to learn!]
In short: the difference in cost is mostly 1) Quality of the instrument body itself (dealers won't stock instruments that are so badly made they result in warranty repairs) 2) Quality control (a labor cost) and 3) Parts and labor to properly set up the instrument for playing.
Example: a mail-order string bass:
Cost of unlabelled, mail-order plywood bass: $800. Maybe with free shipping; maybe with discounted shipping (about $100). It's said to be 'set up and ready to play'. The bag is extremely cheap, glossy, unpadded nylon with one zipper and one handle. The fingerboard and tailpiece are painted maple (not ebony), and the tuning machines, while decent, grind and grate, as they've never been greased. You find it's extremely hard to push the strings down, so you bring it to the shop and find (at southern USA prices - these are practically doubled in the North and the East Coast):
Cost of fingerboard planing (your fingerboard isn't ebony, so it will need to be re-blacked) $200
The extremely cheap, soft-maple bridge can be re-fitted and have adjusters added (fortunately, it doesn't have to be replaced just to get the bass to play, though it's still a terrible bridge): only $165
The tail wire broke as soon as the bass was strung up (extremely common): $25 to replace.
Cut down the nut which is a mile high: only $10
Disassemble and grease tuning machines: only $15
The strings are rubbery, and buzz on the fingerboard no matter how it's planed. They don't respond to the bow at all. Decent set of strings: $150 minimum
The sound post is only 15mm in diameter, made of extremely cheap wood, and is way too long - already forming a bulge on both top and back of your brand-new bass. The bulge can't be repaired, but it can be mitigated somewhat by fitting a quality, 19mm sound post: $65
Congrats! Out the door for only $630. You have a decent-playing, unbranded plywood bass with a bulge over the sound post for only $1430 - oops, the setup work voided the warranty, but at least it's playable. Your find your homeowners insurance isn't crazy about adding something to your policy that doesn't have a serial number. After a few months, it doesn't seem like such a great deal, so you decide to sell it - only to find that it has next to no resale value as the setup work doesn't add to its value, and it has a few scratches, and other buyers know they can get the same unlabelled bass for $800 brand new on Amazon, so you get offers of about $200. You ask the local dealer if they'll buy it, but they don't really want an Amazon bass in their showroom.
Alternatively: you could have a brand-new, labelled (with a brand name), serial numbered, plywood bass with genuine ebony fittings, a padded bag, a high-quality hard maple bridge, high-grade soundpost, professional strings, and a warranty that's no farther away than driving to the local shop, for $1200. The shop, quite honestly, after buying the bass body, parts, and good strings, and setting it up, made less than $200 (surprise! Basses are the most expensive stringed instrument at entry level, but have a very low dealer margin). When you are ready to sell the bass, they will buy it back, take it on trade, or consign it for you.
- Surprisingly, you pay just about as much in a brick-and-mortar store for the same instrument the same dealer may sell online - so, if it's REALLY CHEAP, it's because it's a really cheaply-made instrument on which the seller skipped most of the setup work.
- Setup work includes shaping the fingerboard and bridge, fitting and setting the sound post, cutting down the nut, tuning the tail wire, fitting the pegs, and several other adjustments. It requires anywhere from an hour or so of highly-trained labor in the case of a violin or viola, to nearly a full work day in the case of a double bass. Why is this setup work not done at the workshop/factory where the instruments are made? Honestly, we don't know why instrument makers are not better-trained at setup work - it would save a huge amount of redundant labor and the replacement of poor-quality parts. However, with the exception of a few individual makers (not workshops), stringed instruments are shipped from the factory with either no setup parts (strings, bridge, pegs etc) or with this work roughed in, to be finished at the dealer. Most dealers regard their setup work as their signature, and (for better or worse), it's part of their brand.
- How can sellers get away with skipping setup work on instruments sold directly to the public? As long as the instrument is assembled and appears in photos to be complete and playable, it's impossible to tell how lumpy the fingerboard is or how cheap and rubbery the strings are until having the instrument in hand. Many beginning players can't tell how bad the setup is when they are just learning to play - until they have tried a properly set up instrument and experience how much easier it is. Learning to play a stringed instrument is challenging enough without the uphill battle of a poorly-adjusted ax.
- Returning a mail-order instrument (particularly a bass) is often a costly hassle. They ship by truck freight, so returning is not as simple as slapping on a return label and awaiting a friendly UPS driver to pick it up. It's highly unlikely the Amazon seller will shell out the huge freight company surcharge for residential pickup, and freight companies are business-to-business firms that are not friendly to consumers. You will end up driving to the far suburbs to stand around in a warehouse with no climate control until the last freight driver has been helped and they will finally deign to wait on you, and then be told they won't accept the shipment because the box isn't strapped to a pallet, which they are not interested in providing for you, despite the towering stacks of used pallets in plain view. Most will require some proof that you are acting as an "authorized agent" of the original seller.
- The local violin shop may take a dim view of helping you out with an "Amazon" instrument, or a bass for which you paid top dollar from a heavily-advertised site, but which turns out to be stiff, dead-sounding, and hard to play, or the C extension buzzes and is out of tune. They may (justifiably) feel it's already been a breach of trust for you to have ordered an instrument without even trying out their inventory first, and then come to them to bail you out of a bad purchase decision. They are unlikely to be willing to call the original seller for you and explain the problem in hopes they'll agree to take it back. Some shops actually refuse to work on "Amazon" instruments, while others might charge premium rates to do the setup work - whereas all dealers of quality will warranty the setup work on instruments they sell. Violin dealers have strong feelings about really horrible instruments as they are musicians and are connected to music education. Their businesses are usually small, and are very stressed by the current internet economy, which in the case of stringed instruments, thrives on misinformation. Being a string player works best when there is a symbiotic relationship between local performing organizations, venues, players, school orchestras, and a philanthropy-minded, highly trained local luthier.
- Compare this to drop-shippers selling ultra-cheap instruments on mass e-commerce sites: you'll see identical listings posted by dozens of sellers vying for the lowest price. They have different seller names, and their pages display a wide variety of consumer goods for sale, yet they tie to the same shipping addresses in warehouse parks near the Port of Los Angeles. Do any of these traders really know if the bow hair is decent? Do they give a sh*t if your fourth grader can play the Boccherini Gavotte? Can you take her violin to a warehouse near the Port of Los Angeles and have them adjust the sound post so the E string doesn't sound like an ice pick through your eye?
- FedEx is the only winner when you receive a defective instrument. They get paid twice (not counting their already-outrageous rates). The cost of return shipping will wipe out any profit a dealer made on an instrument, so an actual violin shop will bend over backwards to inspect an instrument before it goes out. If an ad offers no-hassle, no-questions-asked, free return shipping, it means they paid next to nothing for the violin and invested nothing in it, as they have built in returns losses into the selling price, and expect a percentage of returns.
- Although there are a few dealers that ship well-set-up violins and violas, it's wise to first really feel certain you can't get an instrument locally that will suit your needs. Basses are an even more expensive prospect, although it can be much harder to find one locally. We recommend travelling to one of the country's reputable bass specialists and making your selection in person - or, if that's impossible, having one of them ship you a bass on approval. In many cases, if you are buying your first bass, or if it's a matter of just deciding the bass is quality and plays well, you can take it out of the trunk at air cargo and make your purchase decision practically on the spot.
- We don't recommend putting money down on a bass in advance (we're talking about modded stock and semi-workshop instruments here - not high-end professionals having to put down a waiting list deposit with master makers), or paying for custom features sight-unseen, as there simply are too many variables, and once you have created a "sunk cash bias" for yourself, you are likely to accept defects for which you would otherwise send it back. It's easy for a dealer to make you feel flattered and special by getting you to place an order for a customized instrument - then you'll feel obligated to keep it, and even believe it's high-quality just because it's custom. Keep in mind that, just like a custom car, custom features have next to no resale value. You may have spent thousands on a stereo, flake paint job, rims, an intake, and much more, but buyers WILL ONLY PAY for the name that's on the label - a Monte Carlo at bluebook price. We strongly recommend only buying a stock, existing instrument, playing on it for a while, getting some use out of it, making some gig money with it, and deciding you plan to keep it long-term, then taking it to a high-end bass specialist for the C extension, fingerboard extension, side bumpers, fingerboard markers and so on. Buy these add-ons only if they truly add to your gigging life with the bass, since their cost will not come back to you except as gigs.
- Being offered "levels" of setup, usually said to be from basic to "professional", is antithemic to what beginners need. If anything, beginners need more perfect setup than anyone, whereas experienced players can cope with more variables. On some instruments, there's not an advantage to paying for a higher-grade maple bridge, for example, but the specifications for workmanship, string height, and fingerboard shape should be the same for all grades of instruments. Similarly, all levels of instruments should be made available with really high-level strings - often, the quality of strings and setup are more significant to the player's progress than the instrument itself!
- So when is it safe/recommended to buy an instrument online? We can't recommend buying one blindly via e-commerce - you'll have far better results by calling one of the country's quality shops and asking for recommendations in your price range. Ask for an instrument to be sent to you on approval - meaning you'll sign a contract to try the instrument out and pay for it at the end of the approval week, if it meets your needs. If they don't have photos of it on their web site, you can ask for some. When you have spoken to the dealer and discussed your needs, you will receive an instrument that is far, far more meticulously inspected than when you order from an e-commerce site. Though they may have multiple instruments of the same model in stock, they will take the trouble to select one for you. You will be far more likely to find the instrument you need in one transaction, without costly returns, by making a personal contact with the dealer. The sites that spend the most on the glitziest advertising, or that turn up EVERYWHERE on Google, or that re-sell new instruments through Amazon and ebay are spending a lot more on advertising and Amazon commissions than they are setting up your violin. They're trying to make their money from sales volume rather than quality. You won't get a violin that doesn't need work for $88 - but you should be able to get a good beginner outfit from actual luthiers for $350 or so.
- What if I really, REALLY don't know if my kid will stick with playing a stringed instrument, and I seriously can't see shelling out hundreds of dollars on something he will fool around with for four days? Just call us and we can send you a rental instrument! Our rental customers receive support in learning as well as with their instruments.