It was a sunny morning in Tempe, Arizona. (So what else is new?) "HOOOM!" The death cry of tortured air molecules subjected to Thomas Dolby's "Airhead" track at levels hitherto found only at the ground-zero point of an A-bomb explosion could be heard even before we pulled into the parking lot at Arizona State.
When we got out of the car, my impression that God had created only one bass frequency was confirmed.
"HOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!" The sound of ONE HUNDRED HERTZ writ large in the unsullied Arizona air. "Rbrrbrrbrrbrrbrrbrrrrr!" The sound of massive harmonic distortion produced by massive and massively lo-tech woofers. "Spllitt!" The noise a windshield makes when it gives up trying to protect the environment from the din within. "Screeeeeechchchch. Ssssssszzzitt!": sanity-threatening midrange and highs.
"Beep beep," parps the car horn of a driver frustrated by what appears to be an Arizonan tradition, where a car is pulled diagonally across two parking-lot spaces. "Puff puff puff puff" goes Car Audio magazine's skywriting plane as it circles the scene. "Chink chink chink" go the cash registers of the car-audio industry as they add up annual US sales around four times those of the entire audio separates market. "Ground-pounding audio excitement!" shouts the ad on my hotel-room radio. "Phew!" exhale those who spot the "2025 WATTS" notice sitting by one of the Rockford-Fosgate vehicles. "World Record 155dB," proudly proclaims a rosette pinned to one vehicle. "Practice Safe Sound," sensibly states the motto on Rockford-Fosgate T-shirts. "Shuffle-shuffle, mooch-mooch," is the sound made by patient Phoenicians waiting to take their turns to have their intestines rearranged by low-frequency sound-pressure levels in the 120s.
When Hafler/Acoustat's Jeff Peters had asked me if I would like to attend the International Auto Sound Finals last November (the first to be held under the aegis of the new IASCA organization, footnote 1), "Why not?" I shrugged. South West was offering return airfares to Phoenix for $38 round-trip; it would give me a chance to see the Hafler and Acoustat production lines in their new Rockford-Fosgate setting; I also wanted to listen to the Spectra 11 loudspeaker auditioned by Sam Tellig in this month's "Anarchist" column in Acoustat's own listening room; and besides, I had always wanted to see how many 18" woofers it took to fill a Volkswagen Beetle.
Okay, that's an unfair shot. As Jeff patiently explained on the way to the sound-off, while these contests used to be mainly about maxing out on spls, the judging has now swung more toward sound quality. Of a total of (I think) 615 points, up to 200 are awarded for a system's sonics (40 each for staging, stereo image, frequency separation and clarity, sound linearity, and the absence of system and engine noise), and only a maximum of 140 for loudness capability (one point for each decibel up to 140dB---"HOOOOOOM!").
Certainly I did hear sound quality approaching that from a reasonable domestic system in some cars, two that had been outfitted by Infinity and Hafler, for example. The latter featured a clean-sounding bandpass woofer, where drive-units in the trunk fire into a separate enclosure and the air in ports coupling the trunk enclosure to the passenger space actually acts as a low-distortion driver. Although it wasn't possible to listen closely to the contestant cars lined up for judging, I gathered that their sound quality was surprisingly good. Yet nearly all the demonstrator vehicles from car-audio manufacturers featured barf-making, chest-hurting, single-note lows---"Hoom Hooom HOOOOM"---at levels I thought insane. I took earplugs with me but didn't need them---as my chest was uncomfortably compressed starting an average of 10' from a typical vehicle, I didn't feel any need to venture inside. And I thought my vision was blurred when I saw the Kicker van, until I realized it was actually the sheet metal on roof and sides being pumped by the spls inside. But that didn't stop the fans from getting as close as they could. (Note that they were at least wearing the "Safe Sound" T-shirts.)
Cut to the parking lot of Albuquerque's Tingley Coliseum just over a week later, where Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble are making an overnight stop on their 1989 tour. My wife and I are getting out of the car when---what's that sound?
Footnote 1: International Auto Sound Challenge Association