Is an external DAC for the PC worth it if you have a good Sound Card? - AVS Forum
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post #1 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 06:46 AM - Thread Starter
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Hi

For someone that has a good sound card on their PC's, is it worth buying an external DAC?

I have a Onkyo SE-300 Soundcard.

I was considering getting a DAC Magic Plus or an Audiolab M-DAC if they enhance the sound quality as they say in the reviews, but is it really so?

I have never owned an external DAC before, so I am curious, and I am considering trying.
Will you notice any difference?

Has anyone had experience with this?

Thanks
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post #2 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 10:00 AM
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Originally Posted by Spiritvs View Post

Is an external DAC for the PC worth it if you have a good Sound Card?

No.

Hey, that was easy! biggrin.gif

Replacing one perfectly competent sound card with another seems pointless. Of all the things to spend your money on, this is near the bottom of the list. Here's what affects audio quality in order of importance:

#1: Your speakers and room
#2: Everything else

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post #3 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 10:11 AM - Thread Starter
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You're the man.

Thanks smile.gif
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post #4 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 10:35 AM
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Do you have an AVR by any chance? If so, take the digital output from the Onkyo (I assume it has one) and route that to your AVR. Do the same with the analog output of the Onkyo. Then play some content and do an AB. That will give you another reference to compare to without spending any money. The AVR in this case will be acting like an external DAC.

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post #5 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 11:52 AM - Thread Starter
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That's an idea.
I know the optical output bypasses the soundcard's internal DAC and will use the AVR DAC.

The thing I read is that an external DAC will normally have more sound quality than any integrated DAC, being a AVR or the Soundcard.

Kinda like the separates vs integates discussion.

And I wonder if anyone had experienced in the field and it was true.

But I will do the AB test just to see for myself which or if any DAC sounds better. Soundcard or AVR.
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post #6 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 11:57 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Spiritvs View Post

For someone that has a good sound card on their PC's, is it worth buying an external DAC?
I have a Onkyo SE-300 Soundcard.
I was considering getting a DAC Magic Plus or an Audiolab M-DAC if they enhance the sound quality as they say in the reviews, but is it really so?

IMO, yes.

Also, "external DAC" is a loose term.

Meaning that an AVR also qualifies as an external DAC.

The best is the enemy of the good. Voltaire (1694-1778)

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post #7 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 12:15 PM
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Without question you will hear the difference between an external DAC and your internal or onboard soundcard in your computer. Sound Quality is an incredibly subjective term, but you will hear a difference if you are comparing a well designed DAC.

If you end up with the DACMagic Plus (I have listened to this one extensively and enjoy it) use the USB input of the unit from your computer. I would stick with a USB Cable that is less than 10 feet long, but you don't need to have one of those $200 fancy cables. Many will say that "Bits are Bits" but that is not the case with the USB protocol and it does have its limitations of cable length. This limitation is 3 meters for low speed USB and 5 meters for high speed. The DM+ can operate in high speed mode if you set this on the unit and install the Windows Driver. Otherwise the DM+ is in USB 1.1 mode when you first pull it out of the box. 10 feet is a nice round number with plenty of options for quality cables available and ensures that you are well within this limitation.

The power supply of a computer is very noisy. This noise is introduced into the soundcard of your computer and leads to poor quality of the digital to analog conversion. The degree to which this noise is present will vary depending on the filters available in the soundcard and some of the more expensive soundcards have pretty good filters, but the noise will still be present. The biggest difference between an external DAC and the sound card is the design of the DAC circuit which ultimately leads to their variation in sound. You may find that the sound card is your preferred sound. I cannot say with certainty if you will prefer one or the other. But I do believe that you will be able to hear a difference.

A very good reference for USB Audio.
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post #8 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 12:16 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Spiritvs View Post

That's an idea.
I know the optical output bypasses the soundcard's internal DAC and will use the AVR DAC.
The thing I read is that an external DAC will normally have more sound quality than any integrated DAC, being a AVR or the Soundcard.
Kinda like the separates vs integates discussion.
That's definitely true. In that regard, I provided a more conservative case. My hope wasn't that you would find one better than the other but to test to see if you can detect any difference at all. I.e. confirm what Ethan post.
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And I wonder if anyone had experienced in the field and it was true.
But I will do the AB test just to see for myself which or if any DAC sounds better. Soundcard or AVR.
Yes, I have compared both pro and consumer cards to external DAC and found the latter subjectively better. Whether you will notice the same is very hard to say. The performance of internal cards varies based on what machine you plug them into (a problem in general with that class of product) and there are so many brands of external DACs, some of which may have lower performance than your internal solution. And of course, your hearing may be different than others.

BTW, even more improvement comes from using the USB port on the PC and running it in what is called asynchronous mode. The nice thing about this is that you can buy your external DAC once and not rely on internal solutions in the future. As with many, your next music server may be a laptop and you won't be able to put your Onkyo card in there. Whereas the async USB solution will work with both desktop and laptop solutions (and Mac and PC). I still use my first external DAC that I bought over 10 years ago whereas I have gone through a number of PCs and sound card solutions that drive it during that time.

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post #9 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 12:44 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Spiritvs View Post

The thing I read is that an external DAC will normally have more sound quality than any integrated DAC, being a AVR or the Soundcard.

On average, yes. External DACs may out perform internal sound cards. But your Onkyo sound card is not a budget level sound card, but rather a top tier one. I wouldn't expect any enhancement over what you have.

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post #10 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 01:28 PM - Thread Starter
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You guys are all awesome.

Thank you so much.

I will probably end up buying the DAC MagicPlus and try it.
I won't for now go with anything more expensive than that DAC.

I can use it on the laptop too or future computers that I will assemble in the future.

Probably won't gain anything over the Onkyo SE-300 at the moment but I can always use it to bypass the DAC of my old Sony CD player and connect it to the amp and use the CD as transport only.
I´m sure the CD player has a worse DAC as it is rather old by now.

Basically I´m just curious to see if I can detect any difference in sound using the different DAC's.
This passion for all things Audio drives me to do these weird experiments biggrin.gif

You guys Rock. Thank you.
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post #11 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 01:33 PM
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Quote:
The thing I read is that an external DAC will normally have more sound quality than any integrated DAC, being a AVR or the Soundcard.
You're being misled here. An external DAC might be marginally better (or worse!) at the basic task of converting bits into an analog signal, but the difference will be so slight that you could not hear it in a fair comparison. There might (or might not) be a difference in noise floors, but the kind of comparison that's been suggested to you probably won't reveal that. It'll just tell you that one approach is playing a bit louder than the other. You got the right answer in reply #1. Go with it.

If you can't explain how it works, you can't say it doesn't.—The High-End Creed

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post #12 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 01:51 PM - Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by mcnarus View Post

You're being misled here. An external DAC might be marginally better (or worse!) at the basic task of converting bits into an analog signal, but the difference will be so slight that you could not hear it in a fair comparison. There might (or might not) be a difference in noise floors, but the kind of comparison that's been suggested to you probably won't reveal that. It'll just tell you that one approach is playing a bit louder than the other. You got the right answer in reply #1. Go with it.

Would you say we can't really hear much a difference between a 500$ DAC and a 2000$ DAC, assuming all the other components are the same?
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post #13 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 01:55 PM
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Originally Posted by mcnarus View Post

You're being misled here. An external DAC might be marginally better (or worse!) at the basic task of converting bits into an analog signal, but the difference will be so slight that you could not hear it in a fair comparison. There might (or might not) be a difference in noise floors, but the kind of comparison that's been suggested to you probably won't reveal that. It'll just tell you that one approach is playing a bit louder than the other. You got the right answer in reply #1. Go with it.

This is a simplified generalization at best. Converting bits to analog waveforms is hardly a "basic" task and it will certainly vary between the DM+ in question and the OP's soundcard. Based on my experience with the DM+ I will bet 5% of my next paycheck that the OP will hear a significant difference when the DM+ is added to the signal chain.

Passing judgement on DACs as being basic devices which do not contribute to the audible sonic signature of music reproduction is very rudimentary and has no relevance to current level technology. Or perhaps some are choosing to only hear the music, without listening to it.
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post #14 of 134 Old 09-10-2012, 02:13 PM
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This is a simplified generalization at best. Converting bits to analog waveforms is hardly a "basic" task and it will certainly vary between the DM+ in question and the OP's soundcard. Based on my experience with the DM+ I will bet 5% of my next paycheck that the OP will hear a significant difference when the DM+ is added to the signal chain.
Sure he will, if he does the comparison sloppily. But cover them up and match the outputs exactly, and you'd be a little light next month. I hope the OP doesn't make the same mistake.

If you can't explain how it works, you can't say it doesn't.—The High-End Creed

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post #15 of 134 Old 09-11-2012, 09:37 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Spiritvs View Post

Would you say we can't really hear much a difference between a 500$ DAC and a 2000$ DAC, assuming all the other components are the same?

You'll be hard pressed to hear a difference between a $25 SoundBlaster card and a $5,000 DAC. Wanna hear some real-world examples? This first one is a basic pop tune recorded simultaneously through a $25 sound card, a $200 sound card, and a top of the line professional converter:

Converter Comparison

Can you tell which is which?

This is a more recent test, where I recorded music clips through a $250 converter ten times in a row to exaggerate the degradation:

Converter Loop-Back Tests

Can you tell which is the original and which is the tenth generation copy?

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post #16 of 134 Old 09-11-2012, 09:41 AM
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Originally Posted by Greg121986 View Post

Converting bits to analog waveforms is hardly a "basic" task

Actually, a D/A converter is a very simple. You can make a perfectly functional D/A from an R2R resistor ladder and a low-pass filter. The difficult part of digital conversion is the A/D which is very complex. But even with all that an A/D must do, even the cheap stuff is usually audibly transparent.

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post #17 of 134 Old 09-11-2012, 09:58 AM
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Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post

Actually, a D/A converter is a very simple. You can make a perfectly functional D/A from an R2R resistor ladder and a low-pass filter. The difficult part of digital conversion is the A/D which is very complex. But even with all that an A/D must do, even the cheap stuff is usually audibly transparent.
--Ethan

From a fundamental level, yes the basic circuit of a D/A converter may be constructed of simple components. The components in question are not simple devices with basic circuitry. By your explanation I can go out and buy a baseball and a wooden baseball bat and play for the New York Yankees this evening. By all accounts that is an exaggeration and the conclusion is false.
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post #18 of 134 Old 09-11-2012, 11:27 AM
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Originally Posted by Greg121986 View Post

This is a simplified generalization at best. Converting bits to analog waveforms is hardly a "basic" task and it will certainly vary between the DM+ in question and the OP's soundcard. Based on my experience with the DM+ I will bet 5% of my next paycheck that the OP will hear a significant difference when the DM+ is added to the signal chain.

I would probably take your money, were this a world where we could go FTF and deal with this like professionals. I've probably run more comprehensive technical tests on a wider range of DACs and ADCs than all but a very few people, as well as having done dozens of well-controlled listening tests of them.

I've reviewed Ethan's materials and they are just fine and highly representative.
Quote:
Passing judgement on DACs as being basic devices which do not contribute to the audible sonic signature of music reproduction is very rudimentary and has no relevance to current level technology. Or perhaps some are choosing to only hear the music, without listening to it.

In reality ADCs and DACs have become some of the most highly refined of all audio components. The better ones are good enough that you can use them to do bench tests of most other common audio components and find the measurable faults of those other components. The price/performance of ADCs and DACs has continued to improve and very good converters are now included as components of other kinds of chips including SOC computer chips that have published pricing on the order of $10.

It was not always so. For example at the turn of the millennium most PCs came with audio interfaces that were pretty crappy and had easy to discern audible faults.

OTOH back in the late 1980s some friends of mine and I did the listening tests that became the basis of this landmark article: Masters, Ian G. and Clark, D. L., "Do All CD Players Sound the Same?", Stereo Review, pp.50-57 (January 1986) . The article is infamous among many audiophiles because it answered the question it asked in the negative. Some CD players sounded the same then, and as technology improved in the intervening decades that became the rule, not the exception.

What are often rudimentary are the crude listening evaluations (some don't even merit the label tests) that most claims that all or many good converters sound different are based on. Frequently they are not level-matched, not-time synched but are sighted and lack any bias controls at all. This includes the alleged listening evaluations that show up in the vast majority of all published reviews.

In many cases people blow hot and cold on this topic based on listening sessions that were performed on different days, with different systems and using different music. Of course things sounded different, that is how the deck was stacked!
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post #19 of 134 Old 09-11-2012, 11:35 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post

Actually, a D/A converter is a very simple. You can make a perfectly functional D/A from an R2R resistor ladder and a low-pass filter. The difficult part of digital conversion is the A/D which is very complex. But even with all that an A/D must do, even the cheap stuff is usually audibly transparent.

What's ironic Ethan is that your R2R resistor ladder is from an analog standpoint far more complex than virtually every audio converter on the market today. Today converters are virtually all sigma/delta devices and work primarily in the digital domain. Thus the vast economies of scale of digital technology provide us with converters that have high performance, low costs, minuscule size and very high value.
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post #20 of 134 Old 09-11-2012, 11:46 AM - Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post

You'll be hard pressed to hear a difference between a $25 SoundBlaster card and a $5,000 DAC. Wanna hear some real-world examples? This first one is a basic pop tune recorded simultaneously through a $25 sound card, a $200 sound card, and a top of the line professional converter:
Converter Comparison
Can you tell which is which?
This is a more recent test, where I recorded music clips through a $250 converter ten times in a row to exaggerate the degradation:
Converter Loop-Back Tests
Can you tell which is the original and which is the tenth generation copy?
--Ethan

I will do the test and mail you my answers smile.gif
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post #21 of 134 Old 09-11-2012, 03:16 PM
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Originally Posted by Spiritvs View Post

Would you say we can't really hear much a difference between a 500$ DAC and a 2000$ DAC, assuming all the other components are the same?

Of course it depends which specific items, but as a rule DAC's and ADCs are generally impossible to detect in well-made equipment costing less than $30.

For example, the Behringer UCA 202.

Of course, just about anybody can "hear" these things as most audiophiles "test" audio products. However, their tests are usually so badly designed and executed that they aren't even really tests.
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post #22 of 134 Old 09-18-2012, 02:40 PM
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Hi

Sorry if this is O/T but I don't know where else to post this.

If I use a DAC to play music files through my hi-fi system/speakers (using the USB lead into the PC), is it still possible to 'split' the audio to use the PC speakers for Windows sounds as well?

In other words, is there any way when I'm playing some FLAC files through my hi-fi speakers, to still hear e.g. the Windows Notify sound that I've got mail?

If so, how?

Thanks!

Paul
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post #23 of 134 Old 09-19-2012, 10:27 AM
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Originally Posted by Marathonzephead View Post

Hi
Sorry if this is O/T but I don't know where else to post this.
If I use a DAC to play music files through my hi-fi system/speakers (using the USB lead into the PC), is it still possible to 'split' the audio to use the PC speakers for Windows sounds as well?
In other words, is there any way when I'm playing some FLAC files through my hi-fi speakers, to still hear e.g. the Windows Notify sound that I've got mail?
If so, how?
Thanks!
Paul
I answered your question in the other forum you post: http://www.avsforum.com/t/1430028/is-it-possible-to-play-flac-mp3-through-pc-external-dac-to-hi-fi-and-windows-sounds-through-pc-speakers

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post #24 of 134 Old 09-19-2012, 02:54 PM
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Originally Posted by Greg121986 View Post

Without question you will hear the difference between an external DAC and your internal or onboard soundcard in your computer. Sound Quality is an incredibly subjective term, but you will hear a difference if you are comparing a well designed DAC.
If you end up with the DACMagic Plus (I have listened to this one extensively and enjoy it) use the USB input of the unit from your computer.

That is an awfully flawed statement.

I would be willing put my EMU 1212M against the DACMagic any day of any week.

An audiophile likes to talk about how much they spent and how good it sounds.

A DIY'er likes to talk about how little they spent and how good it sounds.

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post #25 of 134 Old 09-20-2012, 04:49 AM
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Originally Posted by Jinjuku View Post

That is an awfully flawed statement.
I would be willing put my EMU 1212M against the DACMagic any day of any week.

I would put a UCA 202 up against either of them. As long as the test is legitimate, all three would be indistinguishable for listening to music or other AV media.
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post #26 of 134 Old 09-20-2012, 06:32 AM
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Originally Posted by arnyk View Post

I would put a UCA 202 up against either of them. As long as the test is legitimate, all three would be indistinguishable for listening to music or other AV media.

This brings up another point as to why I went with my EMU 1212:

1. Can drive either unbalanced or balanced connections
2. ADAT output gives me the ability to easily integrate and route subs
3. Has a crossover function built in
4. Has DSP if I want to use it.

All for a Whopping $165.

That is something you don't find in the DACMagic, Bittfrost, etc...

Telling you pro-audio products get really shorted by the people that don't know any better.

An audiophile likes to talk about how much they spent and how good it sounds.

A DIY'er likes to talk about how little they spent and how good it sounds.

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post #27 of 134 Old 09-20-2012, 01:31 PM
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^^^ +1

I have a lowly EMU-0404, and I wouldn't do it any other way.
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post #28 of 134 Old 09-20-2012, 05:57 PM
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Originally Posted by Jinjuku View Post

This brings up another point as to why I went with my EMU 1212:
1. Can drive either unbalanced or balanced connections
2. ADAT output gives me the ability to easily integrate and route subs
3. Has a crossover function built in
4. Has DSP if I want to use it.
All for a Whopping $165.
That is something you don't find in the DACMagic, Bittfrost, etc...
Telling you pro-audio products get really shorted by the people that don't know any better.

The point being made that sound quality is not the only dimension of DAC performance. While decried by some perfectionist audiophiles, features such as the ones you mention can add value if you are in a situation where you need them.
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post #29 of 134 Old 09-20-2012, 07:23 PM
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Originally Posted by arnyk View Post

The point being made that sound quality is not the only dimension of DAC performance. While decried by some perfectionist audiophiles, features such as the ones you mention can add value if you are in a situation where you need them.

Yeppers. I certainly use the first item. I like knowing that I can drive either single ended or balanced amplification. ADAT allows for me adding Headphone and additional pre's to drive amps for subs etc... Just super flexible.
I will get around to adding a couple of subs to my 2.0 and use something along the lines of the Behringer ADA 8000.

An audiophile likes to talk about how much they spent and how good it sounds.

A DIY'er likes to talk about how little they spent and how good it sounds.

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post #30 of 134 Old 10-01-2012, 11:30 AM
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