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Of Railway Gauges and Speaker Cables/Posts: One Size Does NOT Fit All

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It is 2018 and the very idea of having to exit the train on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Mongolia’s Ulan Bator and China as neither country can find it in their diplomacy to coordinate their respective railway gauges is absurd. So, for just about 3 hours the bogies (wheels) have to come off and every member of the train’s staff has to pitch in to reconfigure the undercarriage so the train can proceed. C’mon, it should not have to be this way and yet this quaint practice shows little if any sign of abating. Not what one expects from a train journey through the countryside (sic) but definitely not something an audiophile should be facing when auditioning/purchasing a new set of speakers and/or cables. The terminations of the cables, whether they be bananas or spades, and the speakers’ respective binding posts are not uniform.

I learned this the hard way earlier this year after acquiring a pair of vintage Klipsch Quartet loudspeakers. Being a longtime enthusiast and now a writer as well I have accumulated countless pairs of cables and speakers. Little did I know that one set of cables would sport bananas that were just too wide, too thick, they would not compress enough to make their insertion and extraction run smoothly. So tight was the connection that from all the shimmying I managed to loosen the screw and washer assembly holding the positive terminal of the Quartet’s left speaker binding post in place. Fortunately, the recessed plate holding the binding post could easily be un-screwed and, with a fair amount of patience and the right  needle nose pliers, the post could be tightened and all set to right.

But what about the un-initiated, less handy, less confident enthusiast? I can just envision the sheer terror in their eyes, the blood draining from their visage, culminating in a dizzying audible whelp. This got me to thinking and exploring with all my cables and speakers: which cables would fit? Which would not? And more importantly, Why? No one set of cables fit all of the speakers while there were some that were more universal than others. If this sounds like blood-typing, it’s not too far off the mark. As more and more audiophile enthusiasts are throwing down for vintage gear this is real, very real. In some cases, for my truly vintage 70’s gear, I’ve had to employ solid bare wire termination to connect speakers to that generation’s receivers and amps.

So, now I’m wondering if I should be advising attendees of future Hi-Fi shows to bring at least one of their speaker cables to see if they are a physical match. I can’t begin to imagine someone receiving a much-anticipated pair of speakers only to learn that their cables don’t fit properly or at all. This goes for bananas, which might be too thick or lack the compression, or spades, which can be too wide, too narrow, too long or too short. Add one more issue with the venerable spade and that is their off-set. An off-set spade, much like an off-set spatula for cake frosting, is ideal for recessed speaker binding posts but not when they are flush with the rear of the speakers.

Why is there so much variance? Why is there no uniformity? Why don’t both speaker manufacturers and cable manufacturers collaborate to ensure the bogies (wheels) do not have to come off the system? The variance exists because there is no IEEE, no ISO standard for cable termination and binding posts. There just isn’t, and that’s the way it is, what we have to contend with.

The uniformity does not exist because each manufacturer believes that each model of binding post and termination brings something different sonically to the party. Unsure just how true that may be…something for me to research in depth. That being said, if all fixtures were the same, then cable manufacturers would have to really up their game as with uniform termination the only comparisons to be made would be between the cables themselves.

The collaboration aspect is something that needs to happen far more. I’m surprised that I”m not hearing stories of exhibitors who have been bitten by this scenario as they have not met beforehand and just assumed that everything would fit. One company has taken it upon themselves to manufacture speaker cables with modular terminations. Such terminators can swapped out/unscrewed and be replaced with wider or narrower spades and bananas of different materials.  And with this, not all permutations are covered. Just goes to show just how many models/designs of binding posts and speaker cables are out there on the market.

In all, I consider myself fortunate to have learned of the major suppliers of speaker drivers and parts to manufacturers. Discussions with them taught me that more than I would have thought goes into making these component decisions.

Am resting easy in the notion that, as of yet, I have not been so unfortunate as to encounter what I’ve outlined above with my interconnects whether they be RCA or XLR.

 

Copy editor: Dan Rubin

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One Response to Of Railway Gauges and Speaker Cables/Posts: One Size Does NOT Fit All


  1. There was method (both practical and for security purposes) to the “absurdity”on why railroad track gauges differ in that area and in other countries, as detailed below from globalsecurity.org.

    “The standard rail track in Russia is significantly wider than the one in Europe. In the 19th Century Russia became one of the first countries in the world to introduce a single gauge standard. The Russian gauge of 5 ft / 1520 mm was approved as the new standard on 12 September 1842. The selection process was done chiefly by Mel’nikov. It was not by chance that the gauge of 1524 mm was selected. It was broader that the American one, and as a result ensured better stability, and higher tonnage capacity, and, moreover, allowed higher speeds than the narrower gauges. Secondly, 1524 mm is 5 feet sharp – a round number, which was very convenient for calculations. In 1852 the broad gauge became standard for new railways in Russia and its vassals, and later in the Soviet Union. In late 1960s a transition to the 1520-mm railways started to ease calculations.

    Popular belief holds that wide Russian gauge was selected to prevent railroad invasion. Also important were the defensive concerns – broader gauge was deemed to be a delaying factor: it was to prevent the enemy from moving fast using Russian railways. In the territories they occupied in 1939, the Soviets converted the standard gauge railroads to the Russian broad gauge. During World War II Germans had a headache trying to find rolling stock and organize freight transportation in occupied territories. By the end of 1941, over 23000 km of track had been converted from Russian broad gauge to German standard gauge.”

    As for speakers, who knows?

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