The gravel around Derek Willet's Plymouth Horizon in the St. Petersburg Junior College parking lot is vibrating. That's because Willet, 19, has his radio on. Cranked up, his "boom" system, which cost him nearly $3,000, handles about 500 watts per channel, more than 10 times the wattage of a high-quality home stereo.
A dance tape of Stevie 'B' is shoved into the cassette deck. Music fills the parking lot. It is so loud that the stars in the nearby planetarium are probably rattling in the night sky. Inside the car, a high school graduation tassel hangs from the rearview mirror. This car and its sound are Willet's pride and joy.
"When your seat starts vibrating and your little tassel starts goin' haywire, it makes you feel good you did all this yourself," he says.
Long gone are the days of dashboard radios. And gone are the days of cassette decks with two polite speakers mounted in the rear of the car.
Today's car stereos make the neighborhood shake.
Young males, especially between the ages of 16-22, are the new architects of noise. With thousands of dollars worth of equipment, they are turning the insides of their cars into concert halls.
Professional installation, which can cost $300, is a two-day task. To protect their investment, they are wiring their autos with high-tech alarms, some so sensitive they are activated by a light rain.
Two factors - new technology and the availability of credit - have allowed the acquisition of a sophisticated, supersonic car stereo system.
"In the early '80s, when I started doing hi-fi," says Nick Fa-Kouri, mobile electronics manager at a Sound Advice store in St. Petersburg, "this size box," he says, picking up a black component, "a 25-watt amp that cost $500, was shaky, at best.
"Now," he says, picking up a silver, more sleek model, "this box will produce 200 watts at half the size for $300. And it never breaks.
Technology has allowed someone to really trick out his stereo."
"They get mom or dad to co-sign and bingo, they've got $3,000 worth of credit," says Fa-Kouri. "They work at McDonald's and pay off their credit card."
Go to any high school parking lot on any afternoon and witness the
Check out Josh Person's lime green and black Isuzu pick-up, with tinted windows and an "Oakley" decal, of course. (Oakley, the sunglass company that boasts "thermonuclear protection," is the current hip status symbol among the surf-and-turf set.) The front seat of Person's truck is moved almost all the way up to the driver's seat to accommodate the huge cabinets and speakers installed behind the seat.
With his Alpine cassette deck, his Rockford Fosgate pro-series speakers, his Punch 150 amplifier, his Punch 45 amplifier and his Alpine equalizer, he could blow the lid off the sky.
"I like it," says Person, a high school student in St. Petersburg and part-time supermarket bag boy. "It's relaxing."
Like most owners of expensive audio sound systems, Person is hesitant to say where he goes to school for fear of getting burglarized.
At a Burger King recently, a man got out of his automobile, walked up to Person and cursed him for having his music so loud.
"A lot of people get jealous," says Person.
A St. Petersburg city ordinance forbids noise that exceeds 75 decibels of sound. Unlike speeding, which can be clocked with radar guns and proven in court, sound cannot be accurately gaged without a decibel meter. According to Wendell Creager, spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department, most officers do not carry decibel meters in their patrol cars.
Generally, says Creager, an officer will advise a driver to turn down his or her stereo if it is extraordinarily loud or posing a nuisance to the public. Creager knows of no instance where a driver has been issued a citation in St. Petersburg for loud music in a car.
Boom system owners say they do not pump up their volume to irritate citizens. They just like their music loud.
"We don't pull up at lights and just bass out," says 21-year-old Pete Lee of St. Petersburg, whose red Hyundai is a discotheque on wheels. "When I see old people or something, I'll turn it down. We play it loud when we're out on the road."
Some rap groups, such as Jam Pony Express and Too Short, produce music that specifically emphasizes bass sounds. The rap group M.C.A.D.E. has an album out entitled How Much Can You Take?, that has such heavy bass lines it makes the coins on the dashboard dance. In some cars, when the volume is up and the bass is heavy, some CDs cannot be tracked due to the vibration.
Dorian Radulescu, a high school sophomore in St. Petersburg, has a car loaded with high-tech equipment, including a multiple-changer CD player. He's a waiter at Denny's, but his parents paid for his equipment, which cost in the thousands. A sophisticated sound system is important to him.
"It makes people notice you sometimes," says Radulescu. "It helps out with your life. It helps you feel better."
Perhaps only momentarily.
Inside Marco Solano's Toyota truck, there are 20 speakers, big and small. Solano, a part-time college student who lives in Tampa, has poured $4,000 into his state-of-the-art sound system. He slips in a Depeche Mode CD into his disc player and turns the volume to about 80 percent capacity. Using a hand-held decibel meter, Solano's music registers a consistent 110 decibels inside his truck.
According to Jay Farrior, a Tampa physician and ear specialist, this would be equivalent to standing in an enclosed area with a loud chainsaw. Or a lawn mower with an insufficient muffler. Or a speeding race car.
According to guidelines set by the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA), exposure to more than 30 minutes at 110 decibels of sound can result in permanent hearing damage.
When he is driving around for an hour with the volume up, Solano says his ears sometimes begin to hurt. Like a scuba diver or an airplane passenger, his ears pop. Farrior calls this a "temporary threshold shift," or, the ear's way of protecting itself. Several hours or sometimes days often pass before normal hearing returns.
Solano realizes the potential danger in his loud music. "I'm probably going to go deaf soon," he says. But it's his next purchase, an Alpine equalizer, not his hearing, that Solano is worrying about.
"That's my next step," he says. "After that, I'll get a multiple-change CD player, and that'll probably be it."