Just What is 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.)