Modern-day instrument makers emerge triumphant over master luthier Antonio Stradivari.

The results of an experiment comparing violins by contemporary makers with two Stradivari (c1700) and one Guarneri del Gesù (c1740) have shocked string players around the world.

The blind test, conducted at the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis with findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has yielded some surprising insights into the quality of modern violin craft and the way a performer values an instrument and rates its sound.

Claudia Fritz, an acoustics specialist at the University of Paris, worked with luthier Joseph Curtin and a team of researchers to gather 21 professional violinists for the study. Participants were given two tests: the first required them to play six violins and nominate the one they would like to take home. In the other, they played and compared pairs of violins, not having been told that one in each set was a valuable Italian rarity while the other was a new fiddle.

Tests were conducted in a room with dimmed lights and a dry acoustic; players wore modified welding goggles and handled the instruments through a dividing curtain. The chin rest of each violin was scented...