The definitive guide to 24-bit FLAC

The definitive guide to 24-bit FLAC

High resolution downloads are changing the way we enjoy music, opening up possibilities undreamed of back in digital’s early days…

CD was revolutionary when it first appeared, just over 30 years ago: none of the surface noise of well-played LPs, no annoying ticks and pops caused by invisible scratches, no need to handle the discs with kid gloves – though the early demonstrations of discs smeared with jam still playing were a little over the top! – and instant access to any track on an album at the push of a button. CD running orders could be programmed, favourite tracks repeated and the duff ones skipped, and in time added features such as CD Text readouts of album, track title and artist would become possible.

For all that, CD was always a compromise, using technology that was only just cutting edge at the time. 30 years on, we can do so much better.

Digital audio encodes the analogue musical waveform, using Pulse Code Modulation. With PCM, the two basic factors that determine the sound quality are bit depth (which determines the quality with which the analogue signal is digitised), and the sampling frequency (which is the number of times per second that the analogue signal is digitised). CD is a 16-bit, 44.1kHz system, what’s needed to improve conformity between the analogue original and the digitised version is a combination of more bits in each samples, and more samples for each second of music: the more bits you use, the more natural the music sounds, and the faster the samples, the wider the frequency range.

CD’s 16-bit/44.1kHz digital system may have been the apparent state of the art in 1982, but it didn’t take long for it to get past its sell-by date. Indeed, some say it was only ever almost good enough for high-quality sound reproduction: Malcolm Hawksford, Professor of Psychoacoustics at Essex University, feels that, ‘It was near the limit, but in my view probably a bit marginal. Ideally, at least 20-bit resolution at 60 kHz sampling frequency would have been better.’

 

FROZEN CDS

However, 16-bit/44.1kHz is what we got back in 1982, and 16-bit/44.1kHz is what CD still uses more than three decades on: we’ve been trapped in a technology ‘almost good enough’ 30 years ago for all that time, just like we would be with everything else we own if all development had been stopped back then.

Yes, there have been attempts to replace the CD with something better – in the early 1990s not one but two ‘high-resolution’ audio formats appeared, and battle was joined between DVD-Audio and the Sony/Philips Super Audio CD (or SACD), the former offering 24-bit audio quality for greater resolution, improved dynamics and greatly reduced distortion, while the latter’s Direct Stream Digital system used a sampling rate of 2.8224Mhz, 64x that of CD and single-bit sampling.

The new formats also offered the opportunity for multichannel surround sound and greater security and copy protection – one good thing for consumers, it was suggested, and one for the record industry. However, there was a problem or two…

DVD-A discs needed a special player – not just a standard DVD-Video machine – and these were a while coming, while the music retail industry wasn’t keen on stocking releases in multiple formats, and dealing with a hassle of buyers picking up a DVD-A disc by mistake and finding it wouldn’t play on their CD player.

SACD had an answer to that one: its multilayer discs allowed back-compatibility with CD hardware, which just saw them as standard CDs. Only when used in an SACD player was the higher-resolution layer ‘unlocked’. That meant record stores could sell just one disc for SACD and CD buyers, but then the pitching of SACD as a premium medium would have meant CD prices rising, at a time when deep discounting on music was really beginning to kick in.

 

What has, unfortunately, made a big impression on the market is compressed audio formats, notably MP3: originally used to allow sensible amounts of music to be stored on early personal music players with very limited storage capacity, MP3 can reduce the size of a music file by around 80% by removing most of the sound you can’t hear – quieter sounds masked by louder ones, for example. Unfortunately along the way it also loses quite a lot of the sound quality you can hear, and while the losses may not be so apparent on lower-quality equipment or when played in noisy environments – on headphones in the street or on public transport, for example, or on standard-fit audio systems in many cars –, when you step up to better audio systems it’s all too easy to hear the reduction in quality.

The good news is that while MP3 does’t sound too great, it did open up new channels through which music could be obtained – via online downloads.With those channels opened up, Free Lossless Audio Codec – or FLAC – now makes it possible to download music at CD quality or better, or store your CDs on computer or external storage, while saving up to 50% of the file size without losing any quality.

The clue’s in the term Lossless: FLAC packs music without losing any of the content or quality, and when ‘unzipped’ correctly the file is exactly the same as the original file. And while we’ve seen a number of rival lossless systems, from Apple Lossless (ALAC) to Windows Media Audio Lossless (WMA Lossless), the Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) is the system of choice for many music-loving hi-fi buffs, simply because it’s not tied to any one manufacturer’s systems.

 And it can do more than cut the size of CD-quality files: FLAC can also come in 24-bit form and beyond, as Albert Yong of Bowers & Wilkins explains: ‘The system is so flexible that it can take anything from 4 to 32 bits and sample rates up to 655350Hz in 1 Hz steps.’ he says.

And FLAC, first introduced in 2001, is opening up a whole new world of high-end, high-resolution audio for enthusiasts: 24-bit digital has a theoretical resolution of 144dB (compared to around 96dB in CD’s 16-bit) which is more than enough, given that 130dB is the threshold of pain for the human ear. That means you can get ever closer to the master-tape used in the studio, as well as gaining all the information made possible by the greater data-rates of these high-resolution files: Albert Yong says ‘The difference is in the detail. Sounds generally are more open, and there is an extra level of airiness in the music. Voice and instruments sound closer to live, and more dynamic as well.’

While you can use computer software to rip your CDs into FLAC, there’s also a growing number of sites offering downloads at CD quality and beyond including Society of Sound. We’ve structured our site to make downloading FLAC a breeze. Once you’re signed up as a member you get free albums every month to download; it’s just a matter of downloading a zip file, unzipping it into whichever folder you want on your computer or storage device, and then playing your music using your choice of player software.

BUILDING YOUR OWN LIBRARY

If you’re looking to build up a FLAC library of your existing CD collection, then a good starting point for ripping is Exact Audio Copy or dBpowerAMP. These are freely downloadable applications for Windows, commonly thought to be the best sounding and most bug-free. Mac Users can try Max, MacFlac or X Lossless Decoder.

To play the music, there’s a range of software players available, though as you’re using FLAC you’ll find neither iTunes nor Windows Media Player will handle the files directly, so you may have to use a modification to those programs or convert the files to play them. Fluke, for example, is a freeware program that works as ‘plug in’ for iTunes (Mac platform), but it can be buggy.

There are various programs available to convert files to PCM or even Apple Lossless, such as Max for MacOSX, but the best option is probably to use a different player solution, which will play all files in their native format.

On Windows systems, Winamp can play a wide variety of lie formats, and even burn 16-bit files to CD while other good player packages include Foobar2000, Media Monkey, Vox and Nightingale, the last of these being a ‘forked’ version of the now defunct Songbird package, having an interface very similar to iTunes and capable of playing almost any file you throw at it.

Nightingale is also available for Mac OSX, and like other players will hunt down all the music on your computer and add it to its own library if you require. These programs also allow editing of the ‘metadata’ of your music files – the information used to identify the music – should you find a rip or download doesn’t quite have the information you want about artist, album, track and so on.

 Amarra Mini by Sonic Studio is a more sophisticated system that piggybacks on to iTunes, replacing much of its audio code with a superior sounding and more flexible system. Sound is excellent but you pay for it; the basic Junior version which gives FLAC playback up to 24/96 starts at $99.

 Audirvana Plus (www.audirvana.com) is another fine application that, like Amarra, shuts down certain parts of your computer to minimise drain on CPU resources, to (so the theory goes) give better sound. There’s a free trial download but you’ll have to pay for the full version. It now offers optional integration with iTunes and is a strong, stable performer. For Mac users, its combination of value and performance is currently hard to beat.

 All these programs work as the playback system, but unless you’re happy to listen via your computer’s speakers, or a pair of headphones plugged into it, you’ll need a means of connecting computer to your audio system in order to hear your new high-resolution music collection.

       The simplest way to do this is to take an analogue line output from your computer soundcard. This is likely to have a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack plug, so you’ll need a cable with a 3.5mm stereo plug on one end and a pair of RCA phonos on the other, to connect into a spare line input on your amplifier to system (although systems and amplifiers increasingly have a 3.5mm input on the from for just this purpose. This method will give a reasonable sound, particularly if you have a good quality soundcard, but it’s not ideal computers are electrically ‘noisy’ environments, and it’s best if at all possible to pipe out the digital signal away from the PC or Mac.

       A range of USB DACs are now available to plug straight into your computer and provide an analogue output. Some provide a line output to connect to a hi-fi system, while others allow headphones to be connected for a truly portable high-resolution system, and there’s now a wide range of digital to analogue converters and even amplifiers with USB inputs. Prices start at about £100, while it’s perfectly possible to spend many times that amount on a DAC or headphone amplifier designed for high-resolution music.

Most of these DACs are powered from the computer, and use an asynchronous USB connection, so the high quality clock onboard will control the computer’s digital datastream. This gives tighter, smoother sound compared to standard asynchronous USB, as a result of lower jitter.

       There’s also a small selection of personal players able to play high-resolution FLAC files (among other formats), should you want to take your music library with you on your travels. The most affordable of these starts from under £200.

       Wireless and network streaming open up much greater flexibility. and also allows the streaming of music without the need to have your computer on all the time. You can copy your entire library to a Network-Attached Storage (or NAS) device, which is basically a hard-disk store designed to connect to your wired or wireless network storage, and which can be accessed by multiple players (either standalone systems or network music players designed to connect to a hi-fi system) on your home network.

Several players can be used at once, each playing different music if required: if you want a whole-house music solution, networking is definitely the way to go. Prices for NAS devices start from under £200 for a simple unit, and players at under £400. And the choice out there keeps on growing, as FLAC music catches on.

However, whichever solution you choose, the sound you achieve will only ever be as good as the quality of the files you’re playing, and that’s why we at Bowers & Wilkins, with almost 50 years’ experience of making top-quality premium loudspeakers, take FLAC very seriously. Not only is it convenient, with its shorter download times and almost bombproof content tagging, it’s also upgradable as high-resolution formats evolve: one label – Norway’s 2L – is already offering 24-bit/352.8kHz FLAC files taken from its original DXD masters.

Bowers & Wilkins’s Albert Yong says that ‘FLAC is as good as it can get for now. I think what it brings is not limited to quality of audio, but the added convenience as well’. And whereas once the choice of high-quality music in high-resolution FLAC was limited, initiatives such as the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound, are devoted to making more music available, and more people aware of what high-resolution music can bring to their listening experience.

High-quality, high-resolution music, recorded and delivered with fanatical attention to detail and quality – that’s what Society of Sound is all about, and why we’re so keen for you to share our enjoyment of the music we offer.

99 Comments

  • Pile of nonsense says:

    “Its 16/44.1 specification boasts a dynamic range of around 96dB, which is ample for most music work.”

    Actually, with proper dithering, 16-bit audio has a dynamic range of 120 dB, which is plenty for *all* music work. 24-bit is only relevant to recording, not to playback.

    http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

  • Mon says:

    Why is it that you are offering the LSO albums in 24bit 48kHz quality while they can be bought big by Qobuz in 24bit 96kHz or even 192KHz quality ? The Qobuz downloads sound more dynamic and open.

  • Patrick Butler says:

    You should have a listen for yourself. Personally, I’ve found that the differences are very system dependent. One with a high noise floor tends to mask differences that are quite apparent in another system with a lower noise floor.

    As for the listening test cited in your link, if we really want to be intellectually honest about abx testing, then we can only conclude that the results of a particular test apply only to that test.

  • Juan says:

    I downloaded FLAC24 files from the Society of Sound, as they were the best-quality formats, but I mistakenly used them to burn CD’s, as my burning software allowed, believing 24 bits might be common to both channels or something similar.

    Now I know I can’t burn 24-bit FLAC files to CD and my burning software probably translates them.

    To my not-so-trained ear the CD’s sound crystal clear (SOS’s master quality is easily noticed) but I wonder wether burning 16-bit FLAC without any conversion would be better (how good is my burning software when reducing music resolution?).

    Any suggestions about this? May be no ear will ever notice the difference, as long as my burner isn’t awfully buggy?

    Cheers!

  • Juan says:

    I was thinking about the problem of lack of resolution for low-amplitude audio signals and found that using floating-point numbers instead of integral ones could perfectly do the trick and searched for floating-point audio codecs.

    As expected I found tons of information about floating-point audio codecs. These not only would have good resolution for any amplitude, but would also make (almost) irrelevant scaling audio coding so that it doesn’t overflow. Moreover, using denormalized numbers would avoid the gap around zero, but not using them and adequately scaling so that noise is always inside that gap and signal outside it, could even allow to trivially trim all noise out from the audio, while simplifying floating-point representation and handling.

    Sorry for so much technical information, but the point is, has the Society of Sound thought about using floating point for their digital recordings whenver a stable-enough (and high-quality) codec is available? What do they think about this?

  • BloodyGus says:

    Several websites offer you sample tracks of 16- and 24-bit FLAC tracks for you to test your playback facilities. I’ve listened to both and can’t say I notice much difference. Maybe it’s because my laptop is a fairly ordinary Sony Vaio, recently end-of-line. and you need a 64-bit computer to play 24-bit.FLAC files successfully. Otherwise it would seem to be a waste of money paying the extra for 24-bit when 16-bit is just as good. I hope somebody with more technical knowledge will advise me.

  • Mike says:

    Many years amassing ‘bootleg’ recordings recorded in FLAC.

    More recently the advent of being able to access sampled LP collections using very good TT’s and cartridges and converting to 24-bit FLAC files.

    Tto give myself the best opportunity to listen to these source files, led me to purchasing a Dune HD Base 3D media player.

    24-bit FLAC in (HDD, network, USB) outputted via RCA analogue into a 30W valve amp and then into home made open baffle speakers (vintage 18 inch drivers & all manner of other goodies swapped in and out to compliment).

    Regardless of where anyone else sits on the idea of what I am meant to be able to hear or whether there should be any diffreence immediately obvious to me.

    I say that in my experience, I am able to close my eyes and reach out and touch the musicians who are there in my lounge with me!

    24-bit recordings have transformed my appreciation of listening to music.

    For me they are so much more than cd ever was.

    Whether anyone agrees with me or not, means nothing.

    For me on my journey, it is, for now, the duck’s nuts!

    :)

  • Confused on FLAC says:

    I’m a liitle confused. The Society of Sound article and passage by Paul Rigby makes sense, I have many B&W products and trust in the engineering and quality and by extrapolation what I read within the Society. I am troubled by the statements and link that Pile of Nosense has posted above and have found his/her expositions elsewhere on the net.

    Not being an expert here, I must defer to Bowers and Wilkins as I deem that the engineers and scientists within the company are the experts. However the musings of Pile of Nonesens do seem to make sense. Can we get a B&W expert testimony on FLAC and the associated sample rates dithering etc.

    Is 24-Bit FLAC only relevant to recording and not playback? Do the higher sample rates really make a difference?

  • Bowers & Wilkins says:

    We are on it and will get back to you.

  • Bill says:

    “Confused on FLAC” why don’t you listen to your ears? Ignore what others say, if you prefer 24bit recordings over 16bit recordings then whatever anyone else says is totally irrelevant.
    On my computer I have Creative Gigaworks T40 speakers with no special soundcard and I am able to tell the difference between 16 & 24bit recordings and it’s even easier on my hifi.
    The figures quoted for dynamic range on CD are theoretical and rely on all 16 bits being used on a recording at some point. But if bits are not being used???? This is a common problem in digital systems and your camera will also suffer from not obtaining the max. theoretical dynamic ranges.
    I think many early CD masterings of analog material were produced by engineers frightened of running out of bits at the top end of 64k and so recorded at much too low a level. That and some of the analog sources that were used, apparently the first ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ CD used a Compact Cassette master?????!!!!
    So use you ears!
    btw Shostakovich 7 is one of the greatest pieces, most beautiful pieces of music ever created. Do listen to the Gergiev version on the Society of Sound, it is stunning.

  • Andre le says:

    “If you’re looking to build up a FLAC library of your existing CD collection, then a good starting point for ripping is” (from above).
    Why would I want to do this? Wouldn’t this produce an exact copy of the audio limitations of my CDs and no real difference/improvement? ie “garbage in, garbage out”
    I’m struggling here. Help :)

  • Confused on FLAC says:

    Indeed I have noticed a difference in FLAC over CD. I’ve even done blind listening tests with my family(kind of fun). In almost every case the listener picks FLAC over CD. What is interesting though is many times Vinyl is selected over both. Vinyl can be very confusing as well- quality pressings, how the music is mastered, and from what source etc, all come to play. I would love to see a definitive guide to the best way to select all music especially as it pertains to Vinyl.

  • Peter Z. says:

    People must realize that there are a great number of variables when it comes to listening to recorded music. Aside from the vinyl cd difference, cds can and do sound different. what do i mean? Well lets use Pink Floyd’s Animals for example. There are different cd pressings for many countries, Yes they are all cd and in theory should sound the same but in fact they do not. Remastered? Well thats another factor too. You cannot say that flac sounds better than cd or vice versa because of the variables. I have noticed differences between the same flac file (ripped from my own cds using exact audio copy) when played on different computers. Again it should sound the same but it just does not. i compensate for the differences in sound to a degree by using high quality headphones with their own respective sound signatures. I also use various sound enhancement software at times. Yes I know there are purists out there that would cringe at the thought of this but hey it works for me. I have not noticed any difference in sound when listening to a flac file that has been compressed at different levels. Yes i have listened to 24 bit files that sound great but i have also listened to 320k mp3s that sounded dynamite. Now i am not saying that this happens often but it still happens. Having said all this, in closing i would like to say just enjoy the music!

  • Oscar says:

    “Bowers & Wilkins says:
    We are on it and will get back to you.”

    Is there any official B&W response to previously mentioned analyses which point out that high-resolution audio files are just marginally superior to 16/44.1 CD quality for playback?

    Ethan Winer | Audio Myths Workshop · http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYTlN6wjcvQ
    Monty | 24/192 Music Downloads …and why they make no sense · http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html
    Ken Rockwell | Why Compact Discs Sound Great · http://www.kenrockwell.com/audio/why-cds-sound-great.htm

    I think we all are eagerly waiting to read an in-depth explanation from an expert at B&W…

  • Michael Fricker says:

    I too am interested in B&W’s views on the merits of 24/48 over 16/44.1 (CD quality).

    I love the quality of SoS recordings and IMO are the best I have ever heard, however, my understanding gained from papers by experts in the field such as Dan Lavry and Bob Katz (google them) is that the extra dynamic range of 24 bits is preferred as it allows greater contingency for error and exceeding limits during the recording and mastering processes but with correct dithering and noise shaping quantisation noise can be pushed out of perceptually important frequency bands to perceptually less important frequency bands (>20 kHz) so that on playback 16 bit will sound exactly the same and is all that is required. All the extra bits do is increase the dynamic range from 96 db to 144 db, however, even the most dynamic classical recordings do not exceed 60db.

    On the sample rate side of things 20–20,000 Hz covers the range of human hearing. In accordance with the Nyquist theorem audio waveforms need to be sampled at twice that, hence we have rates such as 44.1 kHz (CD), 48 kHz (professional audio), 88.2 kHz, or 96 kHz. Sampling rates higher than about 50 kHz cannot supply more usable information for human listeners. Early professional audio equipment manufacturers chose sampling rates in the region of 50 kHz for this reason.

    There has been an industry trend towards sampling rates well beyond the basic requirements such as 96 kHz and even 192 kHz. This is in contrast with laboratory experiments, which have failed to show that ultrasonic frequencies are audible to human observers; however, in some cases ultrasonic sounds do interact with and modulate the audible part of the frequency spectrum (intermodulation distortion). It is noteworthy that intermodulation distortion is not present in the live audio and so it represents an artificial coloration to the live sound. One advantage of higher sampling rates is that they can relax the low-pass filter design requirements for ADCs and DACs, but with modern oversampling sigma-delta converters this advantage is less important.

    The Audio Engineering Society recommends 48 kHz sample rate for most applications but gives recognition to 44.1 kHz for Compact Disc and other consumer uses, 32 kHz for transmission-related application, and 96 kHz for higher bandwidth or relaxed anti-aliasing filtering.

    My understanding is that consensus within the professional music industry is to use 24 bits / 88.2khz for recording/mastering and then dither with noise sampling down to 16 bits / 44.1 for playback.

    The bottom line IMO is that CD quality is actually sufficient for playback and the differences people hear (including myself) is due to a whole host of variables including:

    - different mastering of the same album for different formats
    - equipment limitations such as DACs been better at processing different sample rates
    - poor dithering techniques
    - placebo effect resulting in people justifying the extra expense or being afraid of not hearing what they “should”

    From what I have gleamed it is the skill and expertise of the recording engineer and producer, who together determine and control the positioning of microphones and the mixing and mastering techniques, as well as the quality of the equipment that will have a much greater effect on the “sound” than 24 bit vs 16 bit and 96khz vs 44.1khz.

    My concern is that the public are being asked to pay extra for the original 24/48 or 24/96 recording and less for CD quality when in fact the recording is originally done at these higher bit and sample rates and then dithered down – i.e. CD quality requires more work, not less, and should be less expensive. Go figure.

  • SonicTruth says:

    Just some advice when comparing delivery formats(low-bitrate lossy, high-bitrate lossy, lossless(CD), high-res, etc):

    The differences between those digital delivery formats is infinitesimal compared to differences in mixing and/or mastering before exporting to those formats. In other words, there have been many cases, I.E.: http://www.audiostream.com/content/high-resolution-downloads-nevermind where a new 24bit/96k sampling version of a classic album has been released, where the end-listener or reviewer has been less than impressed.

    You are all probably familiar with the term “loudness war”, where the apparent loudness of the audio on a CD is boosted by chopping off 4-8dB of the dynamic transients, additional compression might be applied, and gain is applied to bring the resulting product to peak within 0.5 of full scale(0dBfs).

    Sure, it’s LOUDER, it’s in your face, but after a while, something makes you turn it down, or press >> to skip to the next track. And you don’t know why.

    Well now you do.

    Buyer beware: Some – not all – high-res downloads and SACDs have been brick-walled to make them louder, at the expense of musicality and dynamic punch.

    In summary, a high-res reissue of a legacy artist’s catalog(pre-1990) should remain sonically transparent to the original, assuming original master tapes were sourced to create that high res.

  • Mike CJ says:

    I think the “placebo” effect is a placebo effect itself. It is like saying a 32 bit color image is not better than a 16 bit color image. Only, it is much harder to manipulate the viewer into thinking they didn’t see what they saw.

    I have the 24/44k version of the Beatles tunes as well as the 16/44 k version. When I have all my tracks playing randomly, including those by other artists, I can ALWAYS tell without looking when the 24 bit version of a Beatles tune comes up. And, cross checking on the playing device, I’m never wrong. So, to me, there is a difference and not in my head.

    Same with other recordings. Can’t think of the name at the moment, but the 24/192 blu ray disc from Norway (I believe) sounds light years better in tone, presence, depth and realism than any CD recording I’ve ever heard, and it isn’t close.

  • portotalley says:

    According to wikipedia, iTunes can currently read, write and convert between MP3, AIFF, WAV, MPEG-4, AAC and Apple Lossless (.m4a). That is we still cannot import and play FLAC in iTunes.

    In order to play FLAC in iTunes, we had better convert FLAC to iTunes more supported audio format with a third party software like dbpoweramp, fluck, idealshare videogo.

    I use iDealshare VideoGo which has both Mac and Windows to convert FLAC to Apple Lossless, MP3, WAV, AAC, AIFF. And it works very well.

    Just google search How to Use iDealshare VideoGo to Convert FLAC to iTunes, you will find a detailed guide.

  • John H says:

    I have audio equipment that can play 24 bit FLAC files at up to 48kHz sample rate with an audio bit rate of up to around 2Mbps. I also have a digital pre amp that up samples a PCM stream to twice the sample rate. I subscribed to Society of Sound because the web site said that their 24 bit FLAC files were at a maximum of 48kHz, but I now find that many of the downloads are at 96 kHz sample rate. In order to play these I convert them to 48kHz sample rate using dPowerAmp, but I still have a problem with the audio bit rate, which is often much higher than 2 Mbps, even if I convert the sample rate down to 44.1KHz. This means that I cannot play the download! Can anyone tell me how to reduce the audio bit rate on a FLAC 24 file to under 2Mbps please? I notice that the FLAC 24 download of Laura Mluva is at about 1.4Mbps, and this plays very clearly on my equipment. When I can play FLAC24 files they reproduce beautifully, but I haven’t quite sorted yet how to convert Society of Sound FLAC 24 files so that I can play them. I welcome any advise. Too high audio bit rates are my problem.

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