Loudest Car Stereos: The Battle for the World Title

“People think they’re thugs, but they’re not thugs.”

So says Jenissa Lillard, the organizer of the the “Bass Battles” competition, who travels from state to state, fairground to fairground, in a beat-up trailer decorated with “Minion” paraphernalia. Her trailer also contains sound-monitoring equipment that tests the ability of her Minions to get the volume of their car stereos up to the absolute physical limit, under the auspices of the United States Autosound Competition, a national governing body. They get pretty close, hitting records in the 160-decibel range, or louder than the “sound cannons” used by some law authorities to break up protests.

Monster Tuck Car Stereo Competition

To her point, the casual observer might see a collection of large dudes, most of them wearing the shirts of hardcore metal or underground hip-hop bands, leaning into car windows and nodding their head at insane bass vibrations, as somewhat thug-like. I can also attest that at least two of them were packing heat in their pickup glove compartment. (This being Texas, that number seems low.) But they’re not thugs; “obsessed lunatics” comes to mind, though.

They came to a decidedly unglamorous rural expo center 45 miles south of downtown Houston to stand around all day on a Sunday in wet dirt just to prove that they have the best audio rig. That requires commitment. This is a middle-class hobby. It takes up to $20,000 to rig up one of these bastards. You have to get the money from somewhere, and none of them appeared to be Walter White.

The Autosound competition actually has a lot of variety. The day before, there’d been a sound quality division, where the judges had sat in cars and listened to classical music, like sad old professors driving home in the rain. “It’s not just about whether or not it sounds good,” a judge told me. “The drums have got to be exactly where they are in the orchestra. If the singer is out of place in an opera, we’ll know it.”

That seemed somewhat incongruous in a scene mostly marked by Bud Light cans in drainage ditches, but Autosound maniacs to know no limits. They do it for the thrill, and for the sport. They call it “banging,” and at these levels you feel it as much as you hear it. Science nerds know that decibels are a logarithmic scale; an increase of 10 decibels means a sound is twice as loud, with 10 times the intensity. A rock concert or chainsaw can hit 115 decibels. The Autosound cars generally surpass 12-gauge shotgun levels and land just shy of standing next to a rocket launch. Serious hearing loss starts at 30 seconds, so it’s incredible that these people aren’t completely deaf. One guy told me: “It’s an endurance thing. You need stamina. It’s hard on your body. I was banging for eight hours straight last weekend. But I have experience.”

Though I banged several times, I was able to handle about two minutes inside one of those rigs. I could feel it in my chest. I could feel it in my skin. It rearranged my body at a cellular level. I found it pretty cool. But I never want to do it again. My insurance doesn’t cover hearing aids.

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