By Hans Morgenstern
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By Julie Seabaugh
Ah, the precious SPL: "That's your sound-pressure level," explains Rob Randall of the United States Autosound Competition (USAC). For the clueless, he offers a simpler definition: "That's the volume."
The Autosound Challenge arrived last week at the Sound Room in Chesterfield, and the fattest car stereo systems in the city boomed for judges, boosted their bass, turned it up to 11 in a competition among kindred ears interested in strutting their stereos. The owners of fancy and not-so-fancy cars, their vehicles' trunks and hoods popped and stereos maxed out, converged to compare and contrast their db's and dbx's, appreciate the hardware used to unnerve neighborhoods and rattle windows.
"We have a sound-quality competition," says Randall, "and an outlaw-SPL competition. Sound quality is very in-depth: The cars are judged based on their installation quality, their creativity, their ergonomics and their safety. We judge them through the installation category, then we sit in them and listen. We're looking for recreation of depth and ambiance, as in a live performance; we use specially recorded music, recorded on an eight-track player -- not eight-track as in the old cassettes but an eight-track recorder -- and this music is then put on CD and is specially designed to stage an image, like a real performance, so we can evaluate the systems.
"The SPL competition is totally different. That's nothing but bass. The loudest car wins. These guys build their systems up; they put the walls in there, put as much system as they can in there. We measure the system to see how loud it is, and the loudest car wins."
There are some loud cars in this parking lot, and about two dozen are pushing the limits of their stereos throughout the day. The result is a kind of floating bass fog that consumes the area, one that doesn't have a center at any one car but wanders throughout, rumbling the bowels, caressing the eardrums in that magical way that only deep, subharmonic bass can. It tickles as you walk around the parking lot; the vibrations rattle the body in funny ways, and you never know when a particularly poignant bass note is going to hit you where the sun don't shine.
"The system consists of 18 12-inch Earthquake Magma subwoofers in a hexagon-tunnel design," says Eddie Martin, leaning on his primer-gray 1946 Ford flatbed truck. "Each ring consists of six subwoofers and is three rings deep, for a total of 18. It's run by six amplifiers. Each amplifier produces about 1,800 watts. Strictly for SPL competition." Do the math: That's 10,800 watts coming out of this fucker. Imagine how sweet "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" would sound booming out at full tilt.
The truck's not much to look at, though. The inside's unfinished -- it's all plywood, rugged and worn -- and behind the seats, said hexagon-tunnel design is simply a bunch of speaker cones positioned in more plywood. The six amplifiers are screwed to a wooden box on the flatbed, about the size of a big air-conditioning unit, and wires connect them together. There's nothing protecting the amp system from the elements, so it's impractical for cruising; a rainstorm would kill the thing. But Martin doesn't use this system the way you would use it; it's strictly for auto-sound competition. In fact, when asked what music he likes to listen to on his beast, the question seems to confuse him: "Music-wise? I don't really play music in this. It really just makes a solid note. It's strictly for sound-pressure-level competition. It's not to listen to music in."
In fact, many individuals at the Challenge, especially in the "pro" class, don't listen to any other music besides the official judge's disc, the one designed for optimum sound quality and used as a standard measuring device. It's curious, to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a sound system and then to only listen to one generic CD on it. But these people in the pro class clearly are a bit funny in the head: Their passion for the peacock strut overshadows all other considerations, including music appreciation. Others, though, simply like a big system to highlight their favorite music. " I listen to mostly rap," says Tony Franks, whose system consumes his trunk. "But also R&B -- Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson. Michael Jackson sounds great in this car. I like the way it sounds in here better than anything else."