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Audio Enthusiasts Sound Off in the Pursuit of Auto’s Perfect Thunder

<i> Haefele is a Studio City free-lance writer. </i>

The noise is like thunder, or the sound film directors use to simulate an earthquake.

It bulges out of a parking lot near the intersection of Sherman Way and Topanga Canyon Boulevard early on a fall Sunday. It is so loud it seems to have a physical shape.

The noise is the sound of high-tech gold-plated amplifiers in carpeted car trunks, of CD players pumping New Age synthesizer music through speakers that virtually upholster the interiors of some very expensive autos. It is the sound of $10,000 stereo systems in $9,000 Fords. It is the sound of a custom car stereo sound-off titled the Full-on Audio Bash.

“This isn’t one of my larger shows,” said Isaac Goren. “Last June, we had the biggest so far at Devonshire Downs: 8,000 people, 198 cars, 44 manufacturers and installers.”

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He opens a scrapbook to photos of FM deejays, bikini contests, and cars, cars, cars--a few classics from the early ‘50s, but most looking fresh from the showroom. Goren produces 10 such shows per year, “mostly during slack sales periods.” And most of them are in the San Fernando Valley.

Goren’s Soundsgood Stereo of Canoga Park specializes in costly custom installations. According to Bill Neill, who co-edits a slick monthly publication called Car Audio in Sherman Oaks, Goren is possibly the premier presenter of custom auto stereo contests in Los Angeles County.

How much does premier sound cost? A car buyer will pay about $500 for what a car manufacturer considers a decent sound system. But Scott Memmer, who represents the Torrance-based high-end manufacturer Alpine, says no one in the sound-off contest is likely to have spent less than $2,500. It still surprises him, he said, that so many unpretentious looking young men spend so much on high-tech, high-volume sound reproduction.

What’s the appeal?

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Bob Daccia, 22, of West Hills, is getting in deep. His beige, high-rise Toyota 4x4 has a top-of-the-line compact disk unit and huge Rockford-Fosgate speakers. It pumps 360 watts, about the same as a large living room stereo. Daccia, an aircraft technician at Van Nuys Airport, already has $5,000 invested in his little pickup’s sound system, and says he has only begun.

Cut the Cab

“If my current system doesn’t work out, I’ll have the back of the cab cut out and put four 15-inch woofers in there,” Daccia said. He’s proud of his workmanship, of the neatly fitting corners and discreet equipment enclosures in his cab.

Like many young people who get started in expensive auto audio, Daccia likes to work with his hands. But there’s more to it than that. “This is definitely an addiction, once you get started,” he said.

And once you get started, there’s no telling where it will end.

Towering over Daccia is Dummy III, a jacked-up pickup packed with powerful electronics. It belongs to Frank Schettini, a friend of Daccia’s from Chatsworth. Schettini is an auto customizer, and his growing professional status is shown by sponsor’s stickers all over his truck. Schettini sits at a table crowded with tall audio trophies, and Daccia’s admiration for his friend’s success is hard to miss. “Frank’s system really would make you go deaf if you sat and listened to it at all the way out for a few hours. I mean, you can hear it coming 2 or 3 blocks away,” Daccia said.

Earthquake Level

On request, Schettini cranks it all the way up. It sounds like what it must be like to be caught in a subway during an earthquake.

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“That Richter-scale sound is still worth points,” said Gary Novak, a 20-year custom sound pro who does research for a West Valley auto security firm. He is showing a knee-high Pantera stuffed with $10,000 worth of custom electronics, and said he found the “pavement-cracker” approach to custom sound naive.

Professional installers such as Goren say their customers want the best sound, not the loudest. But many of the people who install their own go in for volume. Whereas contests such as the Full-on Audio Bash rate neatness of installation, stereo imaging and sound linearity, official scoring standards place major emphasis on “sound pressure level.”

Sound-off judges won’t rate volumes greater than 140 decibels, but federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration figures suggest that 140 decibels is loud enough to cause problems. It is louder than a 50-horsepower siren 100 feet away (135 decibels) or a 10-year-old jetliner taking off 200 feet away (125 decibels).

Like the earthquake scale, the decibel scale increases logarithmically. Thus the amount of energy throbbing in a custom stereo car interior can be thousands of times greater than the 95-decibel limit that OSHA recommends as the threshold of possible hearing damage.

That much sound can even be hard on the car. “If you aren’t careful, you can blow out the rear window,” said Goren, as he cautiously adjusted the controls of an installation that tops 135 decibels. He said that sound-off judges, like airport runway personnel, now wear ear protectors.

Neill said, “The move is really beyond volume, into actual sound quality.” But, he added: “A lot of older installers complain about hearing loss. Most of the younger ones don’t care.”

To many in their 20s, the noise dangers are taken no more seriously than those of hot rodding and drag-racing were 20 years ago. But the parallels are difficult to ignore.

“Twenty years ago, kids would have been putting side pipes, exotic mufflers, things like that on their cars. It was all in the quest for more power, more noise. Now, they put in high-end audio,” Goren said.

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Hot Rod Era

Custom car stereo emerged soon after emission controls and 55 m.p.h. speed limits ended the hot rod era, Goren said. The business sagged as major car manufacturers offered their own upscale sounds in the early ‘80s. The installers reacted with open-air sound competitions.

“The little guys,” Goren said, couldn’t afford to advertise in magazines. “So this is what we did.”

Outside his showroom, competitors around the trucks and vans are drinking beer and socializing. Unlike car owners these days, truck and van owners generally flaunt their equipment. After all, there’s no hiding that asphalt-cracking sound.

“This is the car-as-party-vehicle, the boom-and-tickle crowd,” said Rich Coe, a technical director for Alpine.

“The American’s ego is tied to the car and it’s tied to sound,” he said. “Put these together at a sound-off contest, and everyone’s heart is in his throat.”

Upholstered With Equipment

The trunk of one white T-Bird, a Goren installation that sports more than 1,600 watts of audio output, isn’t cluttered. It simply has no interior--it presents a flat, upholstered face set with gold-painted panels of two mighty stereo amplifiers.

You might be able to insert as much as a single limp leather attache case between the amps and the trunk lid. Up front, however, there isn’t a trace of the 25 speakers. The only hint is a CD player in the dash set above the tape deck. “It took us a week to rebuild the air conditioning ducts to get that in,” Goren said.

Successful improvisation is a hallmark of installation craftsmanship. This setup cost $18,000, he said.

The power of 1,650 watts is about 10 times the power of a living room system you’d never turn up for fear of the neighbors. It would fill a large nightclub. What is it like, coming at you from everywhere in a space barely large enough for four adults? The bucket seat vibrates like a massage chair, but the jazz-rock CD sound is clean, not painful.

Excellent Sound

“We can now build a setup as good as an excellent recording studio system,” Goren said. What was once seen as a limitation--the confinement of a car interior--is now seen as an advantage to a skillful designer. “You are always in the same seat,” Goren said.

He said that good sound weans listeners from loud sound. “It changes the way you listen to music.”

But show contestant Roland Winkler disagrees. Winkler, 28, a Woodland Hills art gallery owner who gets around in a wheelchair when he’s not driving his custom van, said: “I got two levels: off, and all the way.”

But, he said, the 139-decibel top level of his system hasn’t hurt his hearing. “I play synthesizers; I get my ears tested regularly, got better than average hearing.”

If it’s too loud, you are too old, says the license plate frame on one of the cars being shown by Ron Dagnall, 24, of Los Alamitos.

“This is my kind of car; there’s so much room to work with,” he said. He is talking about a Cadillac with a hide interior befitting the leather salesman “who lives in the car.” Its trunk is full of amps and a big speaker enclosure. “He wants to bounce his head off,” Dagnall said.

Although cars like Dagnall’s Cadillac and Novak’s Pantera appear at shows, their owners usually do not. And many dealers shun them, said manufacturer’s rep Scott Memmer.

Hobbyists Responsible

But, Coe says, the hobbyists, not the luxury car owners, are responsible for the growth in the otherwise-flat custom audio market. Coe feels these hobbyists hold the key to its future because they are developing specialized and demanding skills. Many professional installers began as hobbyists, and increasingly exotic auto electronics will require these skills, he said, adding: “You need a real technician, not just a minimum-wage kid.”

Looking ahead, beyond the ultimate car sound, Coe sees technology turning the commuter vehicle into a magical bubble--a freeway equivalent of the crystal cocoons that transport rapt sinners over the landscape of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

“Cellular phone systems will transfer information into your car’s computer as it stands overnight,” Coe said. “You will have your airport departure updates before you start your car.” Car computers will talk to other car computers the way motorists communicate by phone. The car will be a mobile office, as well as entertainment center.

And when such equipment is available, Coe said, the youngsters learning to wire their way around the interiors of their pickup trucks will probably be under the dash installing it.


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