What does State of the Art mean to you?

This was orignally posted as part of thread that died too quickly -- so I've reposted and changed the question/contect slightly -- hopefully, we can get a new thread going.

I'm interested in what fellow audiogoners have to say about what they consider 'the best' (And yes, this is quite long)


Just What is State of the Art (SOTA)? If You Think it’s an Easy Definition, Please Read On.

Current consumer behaviour models define no less than four different definitions of ‘State of the Art’ -- all correct, and all used in different contexts. The interaction of these diverse definitions is what sparks many of the most provocative debates that wind their way through the longest audiogon threads. And it is these differences of definition that push manufactures in multiple directions in their quest for quantity (share of market) and quality (best performance within their market niche).

In the discussion of the four models below, I’ve tried to take an Audiogoner’s perspective when giving formal academic examples of just who prescribes to each model. In short, those audiophiles and mid-fi’s include: (1) the audiophile purist (late majority); (2) audiophile mainstream and high to mid-fi enthusiast (early majority); (3) early adopters (you folks with an SACD player or TACT DRC) and finally (4) innovator (multichannel SACD, digital amplification, DVD-A and MP3). If the ‘MP3’ I slipped into the innovator category alarms, annoys or otherwise upsets you, I ask that you don’t eviscerate the logic for at least a few more paragraphs.

SOTA Definition #1: Only the Ability to Reproduce Live Music is What Matters.

To some, SOTA is a description of equipment that is capable of delivering the very best sound. Period. And it doesn't matter whether that ‘very best’ is a 10 year-old vinyl setup vs. Sony's new multiple channel DSD SACD recording techniques. If the vinyl sounds better to that particular listener, then he/she will consider the older technology SOTA. Strictly speaking from this perspective, a new technology does not become ‘SOTA’ until it clearly surpasses the sonic quality of the definer’s current SOTA standard barer.

Thus, in definition, #1 sound quality is the ONLY measure of SOTA. This so-called ‘purist approach’ is typically favored by late adopters of new technology (the ‘late majority’). Examples from the automotive world include the Acura NSX (best handling) and anything Carol Shelby built in 60’s (pure performance) – sports cars that many purists still consider the best, despite the newest high tech whiz-bang stuff from the likes of BMW, Mercedes and Porsche. From the audiophile world, we have of course, vinyl, analogue, and just about anything done by MFSL. (why or why didn’t someone buy out that brand and their dedication to quality)?

Do I personally subscribe to this definition? No, err …. rarely --- but I do acknowledge that it is a strong, viable minority. Moreover, manufactures such as VPI, ClearAudio, et. al. have developed strong niche businesses based on this strict definition of SOTA, and to me it is perhaps why my ’66 MGB sees more miles than the ‘do all’ SUV I pawn off on my spouse.

In audiospeak terms, tightly niched players may never become the next Sony, but neither will they be forced to write down a gazillion dollars and development hours if SACD joins the Betamax and quadraphonic in our memories. And even though I’m far from a purist, I still wander back to this category on occasion when I ponder why a 22 year-old MFSL cassette sounds better than the re-master to SACD.

SOTA Definition #2; State Of The Art is a Love Triangle of Performance, Convenience and Value.

When the definition of SOTA widens (an approach used by most mid-fi magazine reviews), SOTA begins to include more aspects that reflect the needs and wants of the “early majority”--needs and wants that do not necessarily improve sound – rather, those that improve the overall enjoyment, ease of use (convenience), integration with existing standards, multi-dimensional use, aesthetics and build quality. From a new product development (NPD) or marketing perspective, the desire to reach this definition of SOTA is goal of most NPD teams. The reason? It is usually the type of SOTA that delivers the market share and ROI the big boys need to justify the R&D responsible for these innovations. When a mainstream SOTA product is successful, it crosses the chasm from the small number ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ to the higher volume ‘early majority’ -- the stage where the sales volume curb begins to show the most profit in the overall product life cycle.

Typical of this SOTA definition, would be the latest high-end all-in-one HT processors, such as the Casablanca II and Classe SP 75. In the Mid-Fi world, we have the bloated category of multi-functional HT receivers that have more processing modes than any sane human would ever want or need (the name Yamaha springs to mind). SOTA? I’m not too sure.

But not all products within this SOTA definition are strictly Mid-Fi. Indeed, despite my quest for a Stereophile Class A’ system, I am guilty of meandering into this category on many an occasion,. (OK – Stereophile Class A does not necessarily = Purists SOTA, but that’s another argument). Recently, I left my beloved First Sound Passive preamp to the dogs of eBay because it was just too limiting to my overall enjoyment. When my gracious and all-knowing dealer (Stewart of SOS) suggested I move up the First Sound ladder, I declined because I wanted a pre with a remote. A remote? Purist sacrilege! How could I? Well, I could and I did – ended up buying a Placette -- a “cross-over” SOTA product that still puts sound quality first but adds the much-demanded convenience of a remote.

Indeed, almost all of the mid-volume SOTA manufactures (ML, CJ, etc., etc.,) have added the convenience features that more of us demand, while at the same time trying to keep their purist vision of sound quality first. This is why we are seeing so many high end multifunctional preamps, tube output stages in CD players, one-box transport/DAC, and multi-channel amps from the likes of Rowland and BAT. Let’s move on.

Disruptive Technology and SOTA Definition #3

Quite simply, a disruptive technology is a NPD (new product development) that attempts to pierce the ‘conventional’ SOTA conservatism of the purist. This is a definition that innovators and early adopters use to define where/what our hobby (or any other technology-driven business) will evolve to in the future. But it is also the most difficult category for the purists SOTAs to follow, some choosing never to adopt.

First, let me differentiate between disruptive technology and technology that improves on existing adopted technologies, such as SACD: Academically, a technology is only considered disruptive when it attempts to completely replace an existing standard with innovation that does not build on what currently exists. Examples include the CD vs. analogue but arguably not the DVD, as DVD is loosely derived from the CD. MP3 however, is disruptive to both the DVD and CD technologies, in that MP3 is digital but needs not be stored on conventional discs.

What is also key to understanding the impact of disruptive technologies, is that they are not necessarily better performing than the SOTA technology they threaten to replace. But every disruptive technology does posses two important attributes: (1) it is cheaper to produce and (2) it holds the PROMISE of superior performance than that which it seeks to replace. The classic business example of disruptive technology is indeed the CD, a technology that that never really delivered on better performance (until SACD) but quickly displaced vinyl on the advantages of convenience, lower cost of production, size, etc. MP3 surely falls into the same category now as the now-entrenched CD did 18 years ago.

The important thing to remember about disruptive technologies is that they have the potential to become SOTA even from a purist point of view. Indeed, we hated CDs when they first came out, but now this technology has improved to such a level that we have approached, and may soon surpass, analogue in sound quality. (Before you cry heresy, I won’t even go into what defines ‘sound quality’ – I merely point out that to many, SACD is SOTA). More important than the debate as to which one is truly SOTA, is the perception that digital could surpass vinyl in sonic perfection. (But as that perception dwindled and darkened in the mid-90’s, turntables began to make a comeback --should SACD surpass (and I don’t mean just approach or equal) the “truth” of vinyl, then it could be a ‘keeper” for the SOTA purists as well the category 3 innovators and early adopters.)

If you would have suggested to any self-respecting purist just 5 years ago that CDs could sound as good as today’s DSD SACDs do, they would have thought you had smoked a little too much ‘reference quality’ stuff in your teens. And that what’s so fascinating about disruptive technology: from a business point of view (and for many manufactures) most of us don’t take the disruptive technology seriously until it’s far too late. We need to prepare for digital formats that build on MP3 but are less lossy in compression. This technology is just around the corner, especially with digital storage costs dropping at an exponential rate. How many audiophiles would embrace MP3 or some derivative of disc-less digital music delivery if the quality equaled that of SACD? Probably, all of us except those in SOTA category #1. But are we prepared to accept that this is coming? Most of us would rather have a root cannel.

SOTA Category #4 – Technological Innovation that Builds on Current SOTA.

I’ve saved the easiest for last – the fourth category is the one that many of us clearly identify with SOTA – the latest, greatest, fastest, meanest versions of products we are familiar with, or products that improve on existing SOTA standards, such as the migration of CD to XRCD to SACD, and the host of improvements in between.

Within the confining cyberwalls of audiogon, I’m sure you’ll find a diversity and disparity of what of SOTA really is, especially between the various discussion “rooms” – the classic digital vs. analogue debate, multi vs. two channel, DVD-A vs. SACD vs.….. MP3HD? Well, not yet anyway, no one’s yet invented MP3HD, but you can be damn sure that someone is probably working on as you read this.

So what is SOTA? Well it sota matters who you are talking to. To the category #1 Purist, it’s a turntable with a platter so heavy it could double as a car turntable at the Detroit Auto Show, a clamp that looks like a chastity belt, and some weird fluid that must be ceremoniously applied before needle hits vinyl.

To me, it’s my Placette preamp with its ‘high end’ remote circuitry – the perfect marriage of purist SOTA and SOTA convenience, or wait a minute …. is it my SCD-1?…. or ….wait, I still have that Marantz does-it-all home theater processor/amp/cool remote/6 channel pass through/the kids can use it …or …wait, why in the @#%&! did I just bid on a 9-year old VPI turntable? I guess State of the Art is also state of the mind; something that we all chase, we never seem to quite catch, but we change often.

So what are you going to say, when your friendly neighborhood dealer tells you his new 6-channel 300-a-side bottlehead amp is the new Holy Grail SOTA? Well, I know what I would say. --Lorne

(Credits: I wish to thank Ash Rao, a professor at Lansbridge/Arthur D. Little School of Management and Brenda Sole, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Business School, for their initial insight into disruptive technology theory.)
Lornecherry 06-29-01
I agree with your second paragraph when you said this was a long post.
Hi Lorne: SOTA is whatever sounds best, to me. As mentioneed in the previous thread (not my original idea) is that the best sound is not only personal, but is also the sum of all parts (which in our case, headphones aside, includes the room as well as the listener and the gear). This said, and though I have never heard them, I am fascinated by the design (what I can grasp of it anyway, which is very little) of the David Berning OTL amps and have a strong desire to try one based on this design. My wife had to talk me down from selling one of my favorite paintings to a collector in order to offset the expense of going for one of the amps on Ebay (being sold by a reputable shop). Again I have never before heard the amps and from this I gather that my reasoning abilities are far from SOTA.
What a waste of space.
Leafs .... posts such as your previous one accomplish little in the way of constructive discourse. If you don't like the content, or if you disagree with the post, then at least have the courtesy to say why. If you cannot, then who is really wasting the space?
My post is exact and to the point.Who cares.
I'm with leafs; at least he didn't just vote negative,anonymously. If you post here;many critics will read whatever you post. BTW; state of the art is my goal. It includes most anything, or all things, I can't afford. Mom said it would be like this,if I left school before the 9th grade.( she was right) I got my reservations on the sound quality of a 22 year old casette;mofi or not.
Leafs, how's this for exact and to the point--you suck. Is it that you don't get enough attention in real life, is that you're mommy dropped you on your head? WTF? If you don't think something has merit, how hard is it to just sit there like a good little boy and keep your freakin mouth shut. Is that too hard for you? I'll say it again, because I suspect it's hard for you to absorb opinions not your own--You Suck! I didn't and don't vote negatively either, that was my vote..

Lorne, thank you for taking what obviously took some time. To answer your question, SOTA to me, means pull out your checkbook, you are about to be the beta tester for a product that has been rushed to market before the R&D process has been completed. Increasingly, one pays more for the possibility of SOTA, or SOTA potential, rather than having it delivered.
j_thunders: i find your post to be much more offensive than either of those by leafs. leafs opined on an idea or its expression. you resort to personal denigration. there's no excuse for such behavior in this instance.
Cornfed, that's a mighty fine distinction you're making there, the difference between how me and Leafs handled ourselves. But fine, your'e entitled to your point of view, and maybe your right. Maybe, though, I am tired of reading this guy's quippy little one-liners than NEVER add a damn thing to the discussion with the only message being entirely negative. And speaking of negative, go ahead and give me all the negative points you want--express, express, opine, opine. Either way It stays and I don't take it back.
Thanks Cornfed.I am not negative.Just sick and tired of seeing people have hard earned money sucked out of them by trying to achive SOTA,while the MFGS move the bar and lie on the way.Cd is better than LP.How much money has been wasted trying to achieve a sound we had 20 years ago.
If you can afford to be a Beta site fine.Most of us WORKING FOLK cant.
I'm not sure how this thread got into the 'state' that it is in, but folks, it sure is disappointing. I guess what hurts the most, is that it seems there is little interest or support in submitting well researched articles/threads.

I truly thought that this site was above that of audioasylumn, audioreview and others with respect to personal attacks, one line quips and slurs, and other non-constructive personally directed dialogue, but now I'm not so sure. Can we not bury our biases, egos and axes and respond with that common goal of helping others enjoy audio?

If my article, or defense of same, has offended anyone by its length, I'm sorry -- but I doubt that's the case here. What's disturbing, at least to me, is that we're seeing more and more 'personal mudslinging' as audiogon matures and it is, IMHO, not a good trend. Maybe its the recent frauds on audiogon, the market, hell I'm not sure ... but it seems we're all a little edgy of late. To Leafs, I humbly appologize; and cornfedboy, your opinion carries a LOT of weight here, based on the previous contrabutions you've made and the help you've given others.

Everyone, Leafs included, IS entitled to an opinion, and I respect that opinion. I have not given a single negative rating point to anyone who has 'attacked' my article, nor will I; no matter what direction this thread goes. But I'm left with the sense that articles such as the one at the beginning of this thread are not really welcome here. Am I writing for the wrong audience?

And to those that continue to serve up negative rating points faster than Sampras on a Sunday, I ask only one question: is not the primary focus here to help each other with our common hobby? --Lorne
Lorne, your right and I'm sorry for the role I played in driving your thread off-point. And I should know better anyways, that's the third time I've made a comment re: base negativity in various threads and it's the same as always--so I'll stop.
Hi all, I've been gone for a while. Skimmed thru the above post and can see all are getting along as usual. But with out further comment on the above. State of the Art to me means I will be spending more money out of my pocket and hoping that it is Truely SOTA. Later, Pete
My definition of SOTA is the system that has the Ability to Reproduce Live Music closest possible. Price does not matter. Brand names does not matter and THE TECHNOLOGY USED TO GET THERE DOES NOT MATTER. IT IS THE SOUND STUPID!

No offense to any one. Peace.