Rise and Fall of the UK Autosound 'Sound-Off' Scene

Rise and fall of the UK Sound-Off competitions

[Archived Article] By the time that I felt distinctly sidelined from the UK Autosound Competition or 'Sound-off' scene - for reasons I may never know, but my hunch being that a certain group of people wanted to do things their way and didn't want me (and a number of others) to interfere - sound-off was already starting its decline in popularity. This was in large part due to the fact that it became far too serious and much less fun for the competitors, and the organisers, under the umbrella of the SCA (the UK Sound Challenge Association, which had been started with such good intentions), completely lost the plot and failed to remember (if they ever truly understood) who the important people at the shows were. It wasn't the few that turned up to every show with beautiful, highly tweaked, expensively created sound systems. Yes, they certainly played their part in providing a great attraction for visitors, but the real people who mattered were the competitors who arrived with sound systems barely beyond basic but eager to learn and improve. They were by far in the majority and provided the car audio industry with its greatest business opportunity. And yet they were the very people who, in the later years, too often left shows disenchanted, sometimes humiliated. Not only did they not return, but nor did their friends who asked "how did you get on, I might fancy having a go at that?"

Richard Lusted (then owner of Western Car Radio in Bristol) and I visited the US early in 1989 and came back enthused by IASCA legend Isaac Goren of Sounds Good in LA. Richard knew how to promote a show and, with the commitment of Tim Mabley at Kenwood, who got heavily behind that first event in Bristol, sound-off in the UK was born. After that, car audio installation techniques went from 'standard fayre' to 'custom heaven' in a relatively short period. The trade, and a number of dedicated individuals, took to the competitions as if it was what they'd been waiting for all their lives. Some of the craftsmanship was simply equisite, and the improvement in sound quality - particularly in the realism in imaging, staging and overall tonal balance - took it from 'car radio' to 'car hi-fi' in a leap.

Sound-off competition car - Team Source, Sheffield
Car audio fanatics, as they became, drove hundreds of miles for the privilege of paying to park up in a field in Exeter, Doncaster, Hickstead, Whitley Bay (well ok, Sungold Autosound's show was on a nice, tarmaced car park!), or wherever. Those enthusiasts invested a lot of time and money, and most got nothing from it other than the satisfaction of having competed and having a judge tell them they'd done well and perhaps take time to pass on some useful tips with a smile and an arm across the shoulder. And maybe a rosette and a small metal plaque to attach to their boot install - Huets and Wentworth Car Radios did things right when they held their Hickstead show.

Where did it end up? Infamously with judges scolding a competitor for having a little earthy dust on their wheels after they had been to have their car fully washed but had then been forced to drive across a muddy field to their parking place. I've no doubt the judges involved would justify it as being the only way to distinguish between the competitors, as the bar had risen high by then, but that would simply reinforce my case that we had, by then, lost the significant mass of support for the competitions from the 'ordinary' guy or girl who didn't have a fortune to spend but loved their car and their music and saw the contests as a fun way to combine both.

In those very early days, as editor of Car Stereo & Security, I realised the importance of encouraging the 'grass roots' competitor. How else were they likely to want to travel sometimes half the length of the country to attend a regional event? Of course the camaraderie and sheer fun of being away for the weekend with friends was a big reason many did it, but the bonus was that, where ever they finished, their name would be listed in the magazine. I created league tables so that every competitor would see their name, not only in the issue carrying the report of their event but all through the season. It encouraged some to do an amazing amount of travelling to get themselves up the CS&S tables, but the point was that someone could go to just one show, in his local town, and be able to brag to his or her mates. It really wasn't about the few who turned up and won show after show.

UK Sound-Off competition trophy presentation

There have been many good people who contributed to the success of the sound-off competitions in this country over the years, particularly in the early years, and that includes judges, organisers, competitors and the dealer-installers who took to it with such dedication. It's sad, for all those people, that so much of that was wrecked by a few who failed to understand that it wasn't about them, it wasn't controlled by them, and they had no right to hijack something in which many had invested time and money for the good of the whole industry.

In later years, John Robinson - a renowned UK competitor himself in the early years - gallantly kept on with IASCA UK, putting much of his own money in trying to keep it going. Alas the damage had been done, not only to the competitors but also to many of the manufacturers who had put their money into the early effort to establish the competition scene but then felt marginalised, pushed out by those brands whose marketing made them the 'products of choice' for competition. Yes, much of that was just down to good marketing and certain brands not having the right product or the right profile, but the fact remains that they were not made to feel part of 'the family'. Gradually that closing of the ring around a few select brands got tighter and tighter... until they themselves strangled the golden goose.

Now it's left to EMMA to try to keep the sound-off scene going in the UK, and at the time of writing this they have done, with limited support and hardly a high profile, but the flame continues to burn. Wouldn't it be good to see it back to the old days. I'm dreaming, the old days have long gone. We barely have an industry left to support an annual awards evening, let alone a series of autosound competitions up and down the country. But while the flame still burns, the warmth of those early days of competition is still there for those who want to grasp it. [Kevin O'Byrne, Joint Head Judge, ECAP/IASCA European Autosound Finals Bochum (Germany) 1993 and Rome 1994. Head Judge of Autosound Finals in Italy, Spain and Russia. UK Sound Quality Judge.]