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The viola is a beautiful instrument and one that has been catching my eye lately. I love how much power you can get out of this instrument with a larger body and more profound range.
You get a much deeper range and sound by removing the E string, moving all the strings over, and adding a C string where the G string was. While it’s not capable of the extremely high singing notes of a violin, it holds its own in an Orchestra or solo.
Cecilio has three different violas on the CVA 400, 500, and 600. Each viola is a step from the previous model in both quality and price. The CVA 400 offers the cheapest viola but sacrifices basic quality.
While the CVA 600 is in the top range in both quality and tone, it comes at a higher price point. The CVA 500 falls in the middle, offering entry-level quality and an affordable price tag.
The CVA 600 is my favorite viola in this lineup because of its tone, quality, and longevity. Still, the CVA 500 is a quality budget choice. I’d entirely skip the CVA 400.
The Wonderful Viola
Viola’s are such exciting instruments. Slightly bigger and deeper than their smaller counterpart, they really round out an orchestra. Think of the viola as the alto of the orchestral strings, a vital part of the orchestra.
There are many differences between the viola and the violin, but their makeup or the materials used to create them are basically the same. The viola is made from tonewoods, typically spruce and maple. A good viola will have solidly carved or hand-carved tonewoods, making them from actual wood, not pressed wood.
The neck is at the top of the viola’s body, and attached is typically an ebony fingerboard. However, maple is used on lower-quality student instruments. The strings are connected to a tailpiece and tuned via pegs in the scroll box at the top of the viola.
The bridge, a thin piece of carved wood, is held in place by the strings and inside the viola is a small 1.5 to 2.0mm wood post, called a sound post. Its placed in a measured and precise spot to produce the best sound from the instrument.
I can still see the measurements and marking on the side of my violin from soundpost placement. All of these pieces make up the body of the viola and influence how it sounds.
The tonewoods have the most influence; aged tonewoods will sound more mature than unaged tonewoods. European tonewoods, especially Italy, are the most sought after. Still, student instruments, especially those made by budget-minded companies, typically use Chinese sourced wood.
However, nothing can compare to a violin made from good quality tonewoods 200 years ago. Violins made with quality tonewoods and care will age like fine wine.
The construction is the next most important aspect. Student-made violas are overwhelming factory-made. These can sound wonderful as long as they are made by people who truly understand the care and skill that needs to go into that step.
Still, they may use machines where a true luthier would use hand tools, and the attention to the overall viola and tone isn’t considered necessary.
Hobbyists and small luthiers can also make fantastic viola’s as meticulous care and passion is poured into their instruments. Professional instruments that aren’t antiques are usually made by master luthiers who have won awards and are members of various prestigious luthier organizations.
People of this caliber have studied under other master luthiers for years as apprentices and have slowly developed their own techniques and flare to create beautiful instruments.
Cecilio and their child company Mendini make student-level violas and other musical instruments at a low price. These instruments will never win awards, but they have received many good reviews from students, parents, and teachers.
Their primary value lies in their extreme savings and ability to allow almost anyone to have a taste of playing the viola.
My biggest concern with any Cecilio string instrument is the lack of quality control and setup. The value in these bundles lies purely in the body of the instruments. I always advise new players to take their instruments to a luthier or music shop with a string department to get a complete setup.
The luthier can also check to ensure your instrument is in good shape and measured correctly during this time. For Mendini instruments, a string change is also advised. This will ensure you start out on the right beat!
Cecilio Viola Models
Cecilio and Mendini have split the quality levels, with Cecilio representing the higher quality and more expensive violas. Basically, this means instead of using the bottom of the barrel materials, they have taken some care to select things like ebony for the fingerboard and fittings.
Cecilio branded instruments are strung with higher quality D’Addario Prelude strings instead of the in-house Cecilio strings. Small details like this take these instruments from being nearly toys to something you can get started on.
The CVA 400 is the cheapest Cecilio Voila. It shows in some ways while upping the quality from the Mendini models in others. The body is made with hand-carved solid spruce and barely flamed maple. The fingerboard is maple which is my biggest gripe; if you wanted an upgrade from the Mendini models, an ebony fingerboard is a must.
They could have kept the boxwood fittings to differentiate between models. The fittings are the one thing that does feel upgraded about this viola. The Mendini models are made with maple fittings that have been dyed or painted to look like ebony. Along with a poor quality alloy tailpiece that has horrible built-in fine tuners.
The CVA 400 steps it up with actual wood fittings made from boxwood. This looks nice against the lighter varnish and gives the instrument a very student feel, which I imagine is what they are going for.
The fine tuners are removable or replaceable, which is a big plus in my book. If you have fine tuners, either invest in a quality Wittner tailpiece where you know the fine tuners will last or buy removable ones that you can swap out if one breaks.
As mentioned above, this viola is strung with Prelude strings, giving it a step up. Preludes are standard steel core student strings and a great starter set.
The viola outfit comes with a basic case, which I’m not fond of. It’s simply too small, and there is no room for accessories; this is a problem in many of these smaller cases. The rest of the outfit comes with a brazilwood bow, rosin, tuner, and an extra bridge.
Surprisingly they don’t include a shoulder rest, probably not profitable enough for them to produce. If you are a new player or use a shoulder rest already, I would recommend purchasing one, along with a nicer bow.
The overall tone of this viola is pleasant, mellow, but very empty. There is no personality; it simply exists. The lower register is clear, but the sound lacks power, and the upper register seems to lose both its clarity and brightness. This is relatively standard on student instruments due to the quality of the wood.
This viola won’t age or become better than it is; what you get out of the case is what you will have in 5 years. Assuming the viola makes it that long. This viola is decent for a brand new student or someone who just wants to mess around. A serious player will want to look elsewhere.
- Inexpensive starter
- The boxwood fittings complement the brighter orange varnish
- Upgraded fittings from Mendini violas
- Upgraded Prelude strings
- Removable fine tuners
- lower quality materials like a maple fingerboard
- Poor quality accessories and a small case
- Needs a complete setup and check
- Suffers from poor quality control
The CVA-500 is a solid step up from the 400, at least for Cecilio, that is. This viola features a carved spruce top and flamed maple back and sides.
The most significant upgrade is the ebony fingerboard, giving it better longevity and really bringing it up to standard with most basic violas. The fittings are also ebony, creating a lovely cohesive look, great for orchestras or ensembles. The tailpiece has a slight pearl inlay with four fine tuners.
This viola is what I would consider the bare minimum if you were going to purchase from Cecilio or Mendini. Similar to violins, skipping their lower-tier instrument and spending the extra 20 to 40 dollars for the next model up will save you a headache both in quality and tone.
While more expensive instruments are still subject to poor quality control, the overall quality of instruments coming out of the workshop is higher. Leading to fewer problems right away and allowing you to get more out of the viola before upgrading.
The outfit for this viola is the same as the outfit for the 400. The bows included with Cecilio instruments are poor quality and often warped or unbalanced. I always recommend tossing them and purchasing a student-grade carbon fiber bow for about 70 dollars. Otherwise, a complete setup will get you started on the right note.
Like the CVA 400, the CVA 500 suffers from student tone or emptiness. This time it’s most evident on the lower register, with a subtle brightness breaking through on the upper registers. I really enjoy the viola’s tone; it has some power to it and is overall enjoyable to listen to.
Of course, the overall playability won’t rival a higher-end instrument; this one will get you started and keep you going for a little while. The tone won’t mature or age, and eventually, you’ll need to upgrade as your skills outpass what this viola can offer.
- Upgraded materials like an ebony fingerboard and fittings
- Pleasant upper register
- Comes with quality student strings
- Great for a new student who just wants to try it out
- Small case with zero room for extras
- Requires a new bow and full setup
- May break during shipping
The CVA 600 is their most expensive and highest quality viola. It’s very similar in price point and construction to the CVA-600. Unfortunately, this viola hasn’t been available for some time due to shipping and supply chain issues.
I contacted Cecilio, but unfortunately, they couldn’t confirm if or when they plan to bring this instrument back on the market. Although they did offer to dig deeper into my request. Still, it’s available as a used viola in many online locations or at local music stores.
This upgraded viola is made from select solid spruce and highly flamed solid maple tonewoods. They have been aged for at least seven years; this gives the viola a more mature look and tone.
The hand-rubbed oil finish gives it an antique look that I absolutely love. Unlike the brighter satin varnish of the cheaper violas, the darker finish and subtle yellow undertones look amazing.
The ebony fittings and fingerboard round out this violin, giving it a nice sleek look. It comes with four removable fine tuners and Prelude strings. The outfit includes an upgraded case with quite a bit of storage and a hydrometer.
There are two bows, but they will need replacing. A rosin cake and tuner make up the rest of the bundle, giving you everything you need to get started.
Like the other models, the tone is empty, but it does have promise, which the others lack. This is mainly due to the slightly higher quality tonewoods. While these are probably sourced from the same areas as the other models, the woods selected for drying are higher quality. The lower register has some power and grit behind it.
I found the upper register a little flat, but you can really open this baby up with time and maybe a different set of strings. Still, you can’t rival the playability and ease of use of a higher-end viola. Still, you can learn your scales and likely a few method books before upgrading.
- Made with higher quality and carefully selected tonewoods
- Hand rubbed varnish for an antique look and even tone
- Upgraded case with more room for accessories and an actual pocket for your shoulder rest!
- My top choice for Cecilio Violas
- High-quality student strings
- Needs set up by a luthier and quality checked
- The bows will need replacing, preferably with a carbon fiber option
- Money spent upgrading accessories could be spent on a better viola
- Suffer from quality control and shipping damage
My Top Choice
Overall, if I went with a Cecilio model, I would choose the CVA 600 for quality and tone upgrades. This isn’t my first choice, as no Cecilio or Mendini instruments are the first ones I would recommend.
I would recommend a solid budget viola if someone enjoyed playing it and the tone. Just keep in mind the money you spend on purchasing a new bow and getting a full setup could be spent on a higher quality instrument.
The CVA 500 will get you started, and hang in there for a few years if you need a cheaper option.
Other Viola Recommendations
If Cecilio hasn’t caught your attention with their offerings, I totally understand. I’ve rounded up some other picks in the budget category but offer similar or higher quality.
Top Pick – Tower Strings Entertainer
My top pick is the Tower Strings Entertainer from Fiddlershop. Surprisingly there aren’t that many budget violas on the market. However, Fiddlershop has swooped in again to offer a quality option for roughly the same price as the CVA 600.
On paper, this viola doesn’t seem like it would match up to the CVA 600, but it jumps ahead of it considerably in practice. Fiddlershop was created by professional musicians who tour every workshop and test every model they sell.
They also believe that music should be accessible to everyone and strive to keep their prices affordable.
The Entertainer features solid carved spruce and maple tonewoods that have been dried for at least 2 years. The ebony fingerboard and fittings, along with a composite tailpiece with quality built-in fine tuners, round out this viola.
The tailpiece isn’t a branded Wittner, but it’s very close in construction and quality. So far, this tailpiece has held up for 3 years and countless hours of practice and fiddling. The strings are Prelude or better. The outfit comes with a basic triangle case, brazilwood bow, rosin, shoulder rest, practice mute, and tuner.
The tone has more personality than the CVA 600, likely due to the time and care taken during setup and construction. Something the 600 would benefit significantly from. While this won’t be your forever viola, you will find yourself enjoying it for many years.
Entry Viola- Stentor II Acoustic (1505)
Stentor is similar to Cecilio, but they have a slightly better reputation. Their instruments are manufactured in China and have slightly better quality overall build but suffer from poor quality starting materials and cheap substitutions. This means if you pay more for a higher-end instrument, you will get a better overall instrument.
The Stentor is no different; the 1505 viola is their step-up version. It offers basic student quality features like sold tonewoods and a genuine ebony fingerboard.
This viola is an excellent choice for a starter who wants something that will get them through the first five years or so. Where Stentor builds its reputation is through longevity and better quality control.
With your new viola, you will receive a basic brazilwood bow that will get you started and a nice lightweight hard foam case with actual storage.
Entry Viola Take-Two- Cremona SVA-100
I know Cremona from the music store Music & Arts, where I’ve spent way too much time. They also sell their instruments on Amazon for availability. The SVA-100 is their slight step up entry-level viola. Made from hand-carved tonewoods and featuring a quality set up you’ll get a great starter viola for your money.
My favorite thing about this viola is the care taken for its setup and the accuracy of the strings and fingerboard height. The rosewood fittings look very sleek, and the composite tailpiece looks of decent quality, but only time would tell.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it did break either, though. The out you get will include a basic brazilwood bow and case.
Expensive Pick- Fiddlerman Apprentice Viola Outfit
If you are serious about learning the viola, then buying an upgraded instrument will only serve you in the end. The Fiddlerman Apprentice offers a higher quality instrument with the potential to grow while keeping the price tag affordable.
This viola features flamed spruce and maple tonewoods that have been dried for five years, ebony fittings and fingerboard, and a hand-carved French Despiau bridge. This is a popular bridge for violins and violas. Along with an upgraded European sound post for better tone and projection and a complete outfit, you get a lot for your money.
The thing that sets the Fiddlerman violins apart is their attention to detail and the hand setup process each instrument goes through. When you get your viola, you can play it right away, saving you time and money.
The accessories are also of better quality and don’t require replacement. The carbon fiber bow is one of my favorites, and the upgraded case, rosin, tuner, and shoulder rest will keep you going for years. If you want a viola that is still playable in ten years, then this is the one!
Answer: The viola is played primarily in alto clef but switches to treble clef when playing large sections of higher notes because it’s easier to read. The alto clef is otherwise rarely used by instruments.
Answer: You can get a viola in sizes 12″ through 16″. While you can guess based on age, it’s best to measure the player’s arm.
• 12″ – 20 3/8″ to 21 1/2″
• 13″ – 21 5/8″ to 23 1/8″
• 14″ – 23 1/4″ to 24 5/8″
• 15″ – 24 3/4″ to 25 1/2″
• 15.5″ – 25 5/8″ to 26 1/4″
• 16″ – 26 3/8″ or greater
Answer: My preferred location is always your local string or music store. You will be able to find customized recommendations in your price range. Many places offer rental services or financing so you can get the best instrument for your money.
If you live in a music store desert as I do, then you will turn to online offerings. Luckily, more and more quality online options have been available over the years. You can get options like Cecilio and Cremona on Amazon, or you can look at Fiddlershop, Music & Arts, Johnston Strings, and Shar music.
Cecilio offers entry-level student instruments at an affordable price. Still, they fail to meet quality standards for student instruments or are just made poorly in many ways.
Cecilio’s strength lies in offering a lot for a bit of money, but their major weakness is quality control. While you may get a decently made viola, you may also get one damaged during construction, not set up correctly, or damaged during shipping. Luckily, you are buying from Amazon, and their return policy is decent.
I love the CVA 600, but I would pick the Tower Strings Entertainer Viola outfit for the same price and better availability.