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Report From the Loudest Car Stereo Contest

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I am sitting in the cab of a shiny red Chevy pickup with my new friend Ira Katz. The back has been enclosed, and the interior is lined with plush burgundy velvet and trimmed with rich inlaid wood paneling. I feel like I'm sitting in a love seat in a high-class New Orleans bordello. Ira says the vehicle is worth $90,000. That's because it has 1,500 pounds of sound equipment installed for its occupants' listening pleasure (including six batteries that weigh 75 pounds each). Ira calls it a mobile sound room.

A diamond-shaped cutout area behind us--all mirrored--comes complete with four 18-inch woofers. There are tweeters, mid-ranges, and mid-basses in the doors, disguised behind smooth round- and trapezoid-shaped pieces of burgundy material. They're also in the dash. A CD changer is behind Ira's head. Between us a console contains all the controls for the AM/FM radio and cassette player, the CD player, and a VCR.

When Ira turns up the sound full blast, I feel as if my lungs are collapsing, my body is being squeezed in a straitjacket, and my ears are becoming numb. When I am totally shaken (in about two seconds), Ira turns it down. "That can cause ear damage, you know," he says. "Some people's ears bleed from this."

Where a regular pickup would have an ashtray or a little storage compartment, down and in front of the console, Ira has his VCR screen. And above the screen is a little black rectangular panel that he says he thinks lights up--but he doesn't know how to turn it on or what it lights up for.

"That's where the radio would be," Ira says.

Ira owns Mobile Music on the corner of Clark and Pratt. Today Mobile Music is having a big sale, with a lot of demonstrations by car audio equipment manufacturers--and a contest for the loudest car stereo. Ira, and everyone else in the parking lot where all the commotion is taking place, is intent on making the point that having and maintaining loud, forceful, and well-conceived car stereo systems is a major U.S. sport--and not just in big urban areas but all across the country. The sport is even organized: the International Auto Sound Challenge Association meets all over the United States at events where as many as six judging lanes can run from morning till night evaluating custom car-stereo systems, identifying winners and losers and runners-up.

This growing, maturing sport is not just for kids, everyone is telling me.

Scott Doniger, a computer programmer from Schaumburg, owns a 1988 Mustang insured for $75,000 that he takes, along with his girlfriend Gina, around the country to all the festivities. In order to combat wear and tear on his engine, caused by the constant drag of the 400 pounds of stereo equipment he conceived and had installed in his hatchback (his eighth system in three years), Scott has had compensating equipment installed under the hood. He also shows that to any interested onlookers. A fan shroud has a bumper sticker advertising one of the car stereo equipment companies--it even looks like he has audio equipment under his hood. To enhance his engine sound, perhaps.

Several Hispanic guys with brown paper bags, open white shirts, gold chains, and black crosses around their necks come into the parking lot to admire the pickup and another auditorially fancy Chevy van--but mostly, Scott's white Mustang. They flutter around the car: "It's cool. It's bad. I like it, man," they say, bursting with desire and envy.

"They say this is a dangerous sport because you can't hear ambulances," says Scott. "But my father has a Lexus, and when he has his air-conditioning turned on, you can't hear a plane land in front of you."

Gina says she loves the creativity involved in the sport. "I want to start competing with my car," she says.

Scott has defended the sport, his all-consuming hobby, on the morning news programs on national TV and has debated California politicians anxious to pass stringent laws against such sound systems. Many citizens consider them not only a nuisance but a danger, to anyone who has to be in close proximity to them. Scott says that certain bad apples have given the sport a bad name. He turns up his nose at the red Chevy pickup. He says it's a bad influence.

"Car audio is not about that," Scott says, rolling his eyes at the truck, which I have decided would make an interesting vacation time-share. "That's a demonstration vehicle which gives the wrong image. Louder doesn't mean better. It's all about who sounds good. You don't need to cram in 15 woofers. I've seen that."

Scott explains he only drives his Mustang for part of the year. "In bad weather, for the rest of the year--until a drunk driver totaled it--I drove a 1966 Ford pickup with an AM radio. And that was fine."

By midway through the afternoon, seven people have dropped by to enter the loudest car stereo contest. (By closing, 16 have come by.) The contest judges measure such technical stuff as decibels and sound pressure levels.

Ben Wright, a mail carrier, drops by in uniform--and wearing a ponytail, small tortoise-shell sunglasses, and a diamond earring. He's driving a beautiful, shiny Saab. A judge hands him a microphone; he drapes the wire over his rearview mirror and shuts himself in. He is told to let 'er rip--and after a few seconds of loud rap music, he gets the results: 121. Already an Escort has measured 132.

Ben says he doesn't care whether he wins or loses. He just wanted to see how effectively he'd installed his system, and the contest is a good way to test that--well worth the $15 registration fee. (The contest continues for two more weekends at Katz's other two stores, in the suburbs; three winners from three categories will split car audio equipment worth $2,000.)

"I just wanted to see what I was hitting," says Ben, surprised that he broke 100. "I've got one good amp and one cheap one, but I guess I've got the best wiring and good speakers. Now that's a primo system," Ben says, pointing at the white Mustang.

Ben is into car audio for "personal pleasure," he says. "I have the same kind of system at home, and I like to listen while I travel. I like the way it makes my body feel. It simulates a disco atmosphere in the car. It's like an ear and body massage."

Sometimes, at stoplights, Ben gets funny looks from people in nearby cars. "I just keep on watching the road," says Ben, "and don't pay any attention to them. It's my own personal theory, but I think you tend to hear music more outside of the American-made cars. European cars are sturdier and they use more steel--you don't hear the music outside like you do in an Escort, or even a Cadillac."

Ben says it's not unusual to find Cadillacs and Saabs and lots of other expensive cars involved in this newish sport. "This is not a hobby from the ghetto boys, or even buppies," says Ben, who is black and from the south side. "This is a very mature sport. Older, well-to-do men are into it. They want a really good system. The general public shouldn't see this as a kids' sport. Not anymore. There's big bucks involved!"

The crowd has grown, and Ira is standing near the Chevy pickup again. "Background" music in the parking lot goes through deafening little spurts and then returns to normal. I am never quite sure what kind of music I'm listening to, and certainly there seems to be no emphasis on the music itself--only the volume. And installation and design technique. And principles of sound and pressure and other scientific components.

Ira is saying, yes, it's true, most people do get into car audio for sound quality, not volume. "I install systems for a trader I know who gets a new car every year. He wants an intense sound system because he loves the symphony. When the horns blow, he wants to hear them. When there are drums, he wants to feel them. The frequency has to be exact. I design around that."

The Chevy pickup, Ira says, is simply to impress people--a rolling advertisement for the car audio manufacturer. He says they enclose the vehicle and then endow it with massive amounts of equipment to draw people's attention at events like this one. "There are some people who just want loud," he says. "And 'bassy.' And don't care what a car costs.

"I drove this to Fluky's in Niles last night--they have antique cars that come there on Friday nights--and I was the star attraction. I turned it up, and a guy came out and said, 'Turn it on once more, and you're out. The whole place is shaking.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steven D. Arazmus.

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