Automobiles are an audiophile's nightmare. Speakers bake in the noonday sun and refrigerate during the night, degrading cones and peeling surrounds. Vibration can take its toll, too, as an automobile bounces down the road, rubbing wires against a metal body panel or shaking the guts of an amplifier to pieces. As a result, mobile electronics components must be built to high tolerances and of robust materials that don't always provide the sound quality of a high-end home unit, hence the use of carbon-fiber, polypropylene. Space is another issue. Factory locations for speakers may as well be an afterthought. Buried in footwells or packed in the trunk, speakers sound as clear as Pavarotti translated by a deaf/mute. If your ankles had ears, automobiles would be the best place to listen to music; as it is, manufacturers and installers have to take heroic measures to make a system sound good, sometimes with amazing results.
And that Herculean effort certainly comes into play during car audio competitions. In the arena of the sanctioning bodies, dB Drag Racing, the International Auto Sound Challenge Association (IASCA), the Mobile Electronics Competition Association (MECA), or the United States Autosound Competition International (USACi), enthusiasts and installers fight for the distinction of best sound quality (Sound Q) or highest sound pressure level (SPL). You'll notice that much of the competitions emphasize audio performance. While video has become a mobile electronics staple, its role is to lend razzle dazzle to a vehicle's presentation. The same goes for security systems, in that their extra channels can be used to automate certain components for extra pizzazz (making a bank of video screens swing up and down at the touch of a button on a keyfob for instance).
Competitors in car audio ride in on swells of sonic achievement that can be washed away by a cacophony of errors or swept aside by another's finer sense of style and technical prowess. Of the few who attain legendary status, Alma Gates is clearly the best known. She got into car audio competition as a way to spend more time with her young son. But rather than passing out cookies and doting attention to the neighborhood kids, this kindly grandmother handed high doses of decibels that left people's ears ringing and had them clamoring for more. Dabbling gave way to the competitive spirit, and she and Team Gates began building winning audio systems. This confluence of novelty and achievement attracted sponsorships that have allowed her to hit record-breaking numbers, like 173.6 decibels (43.6 above the threshold of pain and well into the realm of immediate ear damage), thereby maintaining a consistently dominant presence in competitions nationwide. Alma has even become a semi-official spokesperson for the mobile electronic's industry, and is on a nationwide, goodwill tour at the time of this writing.
Her latest auditory assault vehicle is an '86 Ford Bronco in 2003. Alma originally wanted it to be the loudest vehicle on the planet, so she and her team overbuilt it, filling the doors, firewall, and roof with concrete, replacing the windows and windshield with 2-inch-thick glass, and reinforcing the floors and suspension. All of these upgrades seal in low frequencies and maximize the volume that the system can achieve. Then in 2004, Alma's sponsors convinced her to take a different approach, one that placed sound quality over sound bludgeoning.
Fortunately, actually making the transition wasn't so difficult. Thankfully, Sound Q happens to be what Team Gates veteran installers Gary Biggs and Mike Maxwell happen to be about. In 2005, the Bronco's reincarnation began. Gary and Mike did all the body, frame, and suspension modifications, while David Grim teamed with them for the motor installation and custom fabrications. Gary, Mike, and Mark Eldridge worked together on the interior customization. What they ended up with is yet another award-winning vehicle. It debuted this year at Spring Break Nationals in Daytona Beach, Florida, and has twice won First Place in the sound quality category in competitions sanctioned by MECA and two times in the same category in USACi contests.