Who's boomin' who?

If you're new to Central Florida and haven't yet visited Daytona Beach, it's easy to find. Just take I-4 east to Route 92. When you notice that the cars next to you are riding awfully low to the ground and the music coursing through their stereos is making your teeth rattle, you're getting close.

Those directions are admittedly easier to follow when the Soundcrafters Spring Break Nationals are in town. As was the case last weekend, the annual expo of car-audio technology attracts hoop riders from far and wide to the Ocean Center arena, all looking for products that will make them persona non grata at red lights in the coming year. Indoor displays of high-wattage systems turn the interior of the facility into an exaggerated version of the Blaupunkt display at your nearest Circuit City outlet.

But let's face it, being a public nuisance is a competitive field. So it was logical that the most entertaining elements of this year's three-day, 19th-anniversary event were the contests of on-board excellence. Individuals and automotive firms showed off their prized vehicles, putting their audio setups in contention for awards in sound quality, "installation integrity" and even (for the first time) computer integration.

Sound tame? Not on your 24-band EQ. A full three categories were reserved for achievements in the field of "sound pressure" (good old volume). Just outside the Ocean Center, sophisticated monitoring apparati recorded the peak abilities of the various mobile air-raid sirens. The recurring roar of subtones rocked the grounds, throwing attendees off balance with each new buzzing hum. Imagine Darth Vader's light saber run through an echo chamber and you'll have the basic idea.

Man on bass

The Nationals were founded by Paul Papadayas, a big, bearded guy who bears a striking resemblance to that mute biker who followed Cher around in "Mask." As owner of Daytona's Soundcrafters retail shop, he has a vested interest in blurring the line between the nation's Main Streets and its airport runways.

Papadayas was disappointed that I had chosen Sunday for my visit. I figured that the final day of competition would be the most fierce (and the loudest), but I hadn't entertained another possibility.

"I wish you were here when that window busted out," he sighed, wistfully.

There was still plenty of excitement at the decibel drag-racing station sponsored by Kenwood. Cars and trucks were parked in a two-lane configuration separated by a tollbooth-style monitoring station. A beefy security guard tried to wave me away from the immediate area, and I at first thought he was merely throwing his substantial weight around. But when both stereos began to emit foghorn blasts of bass, I realized he was trying to save my nerves from being ground into jam.

As the twin combatants pushed their power amps to the limit, teams of friends braced their bodies against the vehicles' doors. Were they attempting to forestall automotive collapse? No, they were preventing the four-wheelers from moving, which Papadayas said would "dilute the sound pressure." I noticed that safety glass had been bolted to most of the windows. The doomed car of which he had spoken must have been awfully loud.

Hear and gone

The weekend's record thus far, Papadayas reported, was a cilia-flattening 169 decibels. (The threshold of pain is only 100 dB; a Motorhead concert clocks in at about 120.) John Henry of the Omaha, Neb.-based MMATS Professional Audio was destined to shatter that sound barrier. As the tournament drew to a close, he won the "Extreme Division" for systems of 10,000 watts and up by pushing his van's speakers to a mighty 169.8 dB. The crowd's hopes had been high that he might pass the 170 dB mark; next year, maybe.

The volume was lower but the punishment more severe at the Outlaw SPL station, where some contestants in the United States Autosound Competition remained inside their cars for every last clap of electronic thunder. (Others, including all of the "dB Drag Racing" contenders, used remote-control devices to trigger their systems from the outside.) Ear muffs protected them from their up-close encounters with a relatively meager 140-150 dB. Wimps.

Watching the bee-in-a-jar tableau was Rick Andersen, vice president of Audiobahn Inc. in Buena Park, Calif. Though selling car-audio equipment is his bread and butter, Andersen expressed amazement at the money some participants spend on their setups. A truck owner told him that he had poured upward of $20,000 into his labor of love, "not including batteries."

As Andersen shook his head, a motorist behind him set a divisional world record by coaxing 157.8 dB out of only 600 watts of hookup.

"Now all the manufacturers are going to run after him trying to give him stuff," Andersen grinned. And the losers? They'll own awesome home stereos when they're reduced to living in their cars.

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