The direct selling companies could be a good option...most of them are pretty damn good bikes too.
The big improvement I think in FS bikes has been shocks and forks...the early FSR rear end isn't that different to what Specialized sell now (demo excl), pivot positions have been tweaked but it's fundamentally the same system. But better angles and shocks mean they feel like much better bikes.
As mentioned, air shocks are massively improved. I know a lot of people aren't fans, but my DHX Air has been great so far.
2015 Stanton Ti Switchback
2006 Specialized Demo 8
2013 Specialized Allez Sport
1999 Santa Cruz Chameleon
1994 Cannnondale Beast of the East (rebuild still in progress)