From Russia With Love - The First Russian National Autosound Challenge, July 11-12 1998

Written by the contest head judge and former editor of Car Stereo & Security Magazine, Kevin O'Byrne. Reproduced in memory of Andrei Eliutin, a good friend and an icon in the car audio industry who left us too soon

It was surely no coincidence that author Ian Fleming gave his famous British agent the same code name as the international dialling code for Russia. But times have changed since those vintage Sean Connery 007 movies. If you see a gold Aston Martin in Moscow these days, the only Bazookas it'll be carrying are bass tubes. The locals have caught the "sound-off" bug.

The idea of holding a sound-off in Russia would have been laughable only a few years ago, before the tanks rolled onto the bridge opposite the White House in Moscow and opened fire on the seat of Soviet government. It still seemed highly improbable just 18 months ago when the 'crazy idea' first took flight. Sure, attitudes have changed a great deal in Russia - economic problems aside - and the people in the big cities are quickly becoming 'westernised', but this is a population still coming to terms with its ability to express itself freely and be able to earn the money to buy the tools of self-expression, such as your average BMW or 4x4 and a decent car stereo system. Relatively few people in the UK know what a sound-off is, even after nine years, so what chance of explaining it to the average Russian!

A meeting at the UK Sound Challenge Association Finals in London last year (1997) got the red ball rolling. Having made contact via the Internet, former German autosound association event director, Armin Mohren, and UK sound-off 'veteran' Arnot Franses met with Dr. Andrei Eliutin, a university lecturer who once worked on Russia's space programme and just happened to share a passion for car audio (who said car audio wasn't rocket scientist stuff?). Between them they formulated the basis for a contest in Moscow. They had no venue, no dates, no judges and no Russian rulebook. Very few in Russia had ever heard of IASCA (America's International Auto Sound Challenge Association), and although there were a few professionals and amateur enthusiasts who had a pretty good idea of what it was all about, Andrei would have a tough job getting the concept across. "Is it a contest to find who can install a stereo system the fastest?" asked one hi-fi supplier.

Russia's SCA
Andrei (pictured to the right, looking into the camera from under one of the judges canopies) teamed up with close friend Vadim Jalalov who runs an installation workshop in the capital, Autolux. When it became clear that it would be impossible to attract membership into a sound-off organisation - Russian distributors simply won't work together - they formed RASCA (the Russian Auto Sound Contests Agency) as an independent company that will oversee the development of sound-off and other activities, such as training seminars and installer certification.

Andrei wrote many of the relatively few articles about car audio published in the car and audio/video magazines - there were no specialist magazines at that time, though there are now two and Andrei is the editor of one. As a forerunner to their specialist car audio magazine, the publishers of Audio Video carried a 'magazine within a magazine' and offered several pages in one issue to carry the full judging rules. These essentially followed the latest IASCA rulebook but translated from (and taking some elements of) the Swedish rulebook. This issue of AV magazine effectively became RASCA's rulebook for the time being. Andrei also set up a website to carry the judging rules and provide competitors with an easy way of registering.

The venue for the contest on July 10-12 was to be the open-air "Exotic Car Show" taking place on the old Tushino airfield in the north-west of Moscow. Most important of all, they now had independent financial backing thanks to Kirill Koulajko of the Cummos company and succeeded in attracting sponsorship from Sharp Electronics - despite the fact that the company no longer manufactures car audio - which allowed them to offer prizes as well as trophies. A travel company sponsored the main prizes of trips to the SCA Finals in London for the eventual Grand Prix winners, Dmitri Matveev and Pavel Gorenkov.

I was delighted to accept Andrei's invitation to be event Head Judge. We hadn't approached IASCA at this stage, still unsure whether the whole thing was even viable, but we needed test discs. Not wanting to contravene copyright regulations (despite the fact that Russia is notorious for it) Andrei cut just a small number of discs using a CD-ROM writer, enough to give a 'personal copy' to every truly interested pro installer so that they could begin to build and tune their systems.

East meets West
The judges had received some local training before my arrival but I knew it wouldn't be an easy task to train rookie Russian judges, and I was delighted and relieved to learn that Thomas Pasler - Polk Audio's European Autosound Sales Manager and an experienced German IASCA judge - had already planned a business trip to Moscow for the event. Better still, he'd be bringing with him Nic K├Ânig, one of Germany's top installers and sound-off trophy winners. They were soon recruited to the job of training the installation judges while I did my best with the sound quality guys. Our German and English speaking companions, Victor and Roman, considerably eased translation problems.

RASCA had chosen to run three Amateur and three Pro classes. From the attendance at the training seminar, it was clear that we'd only have three full teams of judges, yet we were expecting anything from 50 to 250 cars because Andrei had decided that anyone interested could just turn up and register on either of the days. Our anxiety levels increased a tad more when we learned that competitors had been informed that judging would start soon after 12 noon, which meant they could turn up any time up to eleven o'clock. Some basic calculations of the available judging time over the weekend divided by the likely number of cars presented us with the scary realisation that, however good the judges, there might simply not be enough time! Mild panic began to set in.

However, by the end of the training session we were reasonably confident in the ability of the judges, which had been my big concern. The guys appointed to handle the RTA (Real Time Analyser) measurements came from no less a place than the Moscow Technical University's Acoustic Center, led by the head of the centre Dmitry Svoboda. I was greatly impressed by this, though a little less so when I saw their 'Heath Robinson' microphone stand. But it was regulation height and did the job.

Thomas and Nic prepared themselves for the jobs of Sound Quality and Installation Quality section 'Tsars' - always available to the judges in case they needed any advice or a second opinion - which would leave me free to run around like a headless chicken while they got on with running the show.

ShowTime in Moscow
The morning of the show was soon upon us and we awoke to rain. This wasn't part of the master plan. The event coincided with the opening days of the World Youth Games in Moscow and it was a well-known fact that Moscow's much-loved mayor had promised to fund airborne precipitation control. By 11.30, with almost perfect timing, we had blistering sunshine. "It's not a plan, it's a conspiracy", quipped Armin, who was with us partly as an IASCA observer. This was to become one of several memorable phrases of that weekend. Whether the result of technology or an act of God, the sunshine helped to attract a large number of visitors.

The quality of the installations varied considerably and that was nice to see. The amateur cars spanned the full spectrum from very basic to really quite impressive installs in everything from Ladas, BMWs and some sleek sporty models, to a delivery truck and the motor unit of a heavy goods vehicle!

Two guys from Volgograd built their own power amplifier and passive crossovers and modified a small pair of home speakers, which they installed high in the footwells of their Lada. Contrary to normal IASCA practice when home-built amps are used, they were allowed to compete in the amateur class and it was one of the cars I decided I had to listen to. They warned me that the wiring in the boot looked a mess - and it certainly did - but the system sounded very dynamic and detailed and that was good enough to win them a trophy. But for me what really earned them that trophy was the fact that Volgograd is a 2000km round trip, and in the old Fiat 124 derivative it must have seemed twice that distance!

Several of the pros were clearly in tune with the sound-off scene, thanks to American and European car audio magazines, and the installations showed some seriously high class workmanship in wood, vinyl, leather and Perspex. The systems reflected a good level of knowledge and certainly didn't look or sound like they'd been installed by guys competing in their very first sound-off.

Day two also started with rain - rain like you see in your worse nightmares if you're the organiser or head judge of a sound-off in the open - and this time it was set to stay. We huddled under the two or three small canopies and came close to having to abandon the whole thing on several occasions, then the sun would poke its rays through a gap in the dark clouds just enough to persuade us to keep going. I consoled myself with the thought that the rain had perhaps deterred further competitors from arriving. Fifty-five vehicles were judged over the two days, having started at 1.30pm on the first day and about noon on the second. Saturday's session was brought to a close at 9.30pm and we completed the judging by 7.45pm on the Sunday - better than it sounds since the target was 8pm.

The only two foreign entries were very experienced members of the DLS/Genesis team, Jerker Sjodin and Stefan Jonsson, who had driven over from Sweden. Not surprisingly they grabbed top spot in their classes. Russian competitors were given a first hand example of what they're up against but they certainly weren't humiliated. In fact there was considerable Russian jubilation when Vadim Jalalov's own Kicker/Rockford-equipped 4x4 beat off the Swedes to take top honours in the SPL contest with a relatively modest 135.9dB (though it's only fair to add that the Swedish cars were built purely for sound quality and not SPL).

Andrei had decided to print all the certificates right there at the show - every competitor went away with one, each one personally signed by Andrei and myself. Spots of rainwater dripping from the canopy smudged the text but even this was turned into a positive since it proved that the certificate was authentic - RASCA is even considering incorporating a 'smudge' on future certificates to commemorate that first rain-soaked event!

It was after 9pm when the prize-giving eventually got under way, with the rest of the show site deserted but a happy throng of competitors and their friends gathered eagerly around the winners' podium (yep, just like every other sound-off). And, as if all part of the plan, the rain had finally stopped.

The fact that they held their first sound-off proved that much had changed in Russia, but a few signs of the 'old times' still persist. We passed the American embassy, the old one. The 'new' embassy, built quite a few years ago, lays behind it, empty. The Americans discovered that the structure of the building was riddled with listening devices. "It's widely known to have been built with microconcrete," Andrei told me with a broad smile, "20 percent concrete, 80 percent microphones." Yep, Russians have always loved their audio. All they've done is swap Carter and Nixon for Meatloaf and ZZ Top. Do svidania, baby.

RASCA Russian Finals 1998 trophy winners
Class 500 (amateur systems up to $500 excluding installation)
1] A.Poliakov - Gazelle light truck - no product details available - 170,25 points
2] A.Skorikov - Lada 2106 - no product details available - 168,20 points
3] C. Bubeltsov - Lada 2104 - home made power amp & crossovers - 166,55 points

Class 2000 (amateur systems up to $2000)
1] E. Nikitin - Subaru Impreza - no product details available - 214,70 points
2] P. Gorenkov - BMW 730i - Blaupunkt, Infinity, Macrom - 209,80 points
3] M. Ushakov - Lada Samara 2109 - Rockford, Macrom, Crunch - 199,85 points

Class Maximum (amateurs, unlimited)
1] Jerker Sjodin - Opel Vectra - DLS, Genesis - 328,90 points
2] S. Danilov - Ford Scorpio - Polk, Signat - 263,65 points
3] A. Drosu -BMW 525 - no product details available - 231,40 points

Class Pro 200 (up to 200W)
1] Autolux Pro - Nissan Terrano II - Dynaudio, Phoenix Gold - 249,05 points
2] SV Art - Lada 2108 Samara - Blaupunkt, Infinity, JL Audio - 234,75 points
3] Alarm Service - Lada 2108 Samara - no product details available - 220,55 points

Class Pro 600 (200-600W)
1] Avtodom - BMW 328i - Alpine, Boston, Soundstream - 282,45 points
2] SV Art - Mercedes W124 - McIntosh, Zapco, JL Audio - 282,45 points
3] Autolux Pro - Audi 100 - MB Quart, Crunch, Hifonics - 264,60 points

Class Pro Maximum (unlimited)
1] S. Jonsson - Peugeot 405 - DLS, Genesis - 341,85 points
2] ST Variant - Kia Clarus - Polk, Signat - 263,65 points
3] SPM Sound - Honda Civic - Xtant, OZ Audio - 250,30 points

Special awards
BEST OF SHOW, AM: S. Danilov (Ford Scorpio) - Polk, Signat
BEST OF SHOW, PRO: RG Sound (Honda Passport) - Phase Linear, Davis
GRAND PRIX WINNER, PRO: Dmitri Matveev, Avtodom M-Style