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Let’s face it, the V-Moda Crossfade M-100 is one of the coolest looking headphones that I’ve ever come across. But then I love uncluttered industrial designs.

This is a pair of cans that’s all metal and faux leather, and the matte black version Headphone Zone provided for this review is drop dead gorgeous. V-Moda was started by DJ Val Kolton – a fact that could potentially turn off some audiophiles because DJs dig bass – but the firm has sold more than 4 million cans since 2004, so it must be getting some things right.

The Crossfade M-100 is the top of the over-ear model offered by V-Moda in India and a lot has gone into its design. v-moda Military-grade durability seems to have been a priority for its designers – V-Moda says the M-100’s Kevlar cables can survive a million bends and the headband can retain its shape even after being bent flat more than 10 times. The headphones can survive more than 70 drops on concrete from a height of six feet and exposure to extreme temperatures and salt spray, meaning you can take them to the beach.

For sound, the M-100 depends on 50mm dual diaphragm drivers with separate inner and outer rings that prevent the bass from bleeding into the mids and highs.

And the special Cliqfold hinge developed specially by V-Moda for the M-100 allow the headphones to be folded up to fit into a handball-size zippered clamshell case that also holds a three-foot cable with mic and one-button controller for use with smartphones, a second 6.5-foot cable and 6.4mm gold-plated adapter for using the cans with amplifiers.

There are other design touches that make these cans stand out – the cables terminate in 45-degree angle 3.5mm plugs that provide better strain relief when used with smartphones or portable audio players and the cables can be connected to either the left or right ear cups.

But how does the M-100 sound? Straight up, these headphones have what is known as a “V-shaped” sound – oodles of tight bass and nice airy highs. Playing 320 kbps MP3s through Poweramp on my Sony Experia smartphone, the sound was nimble and sure-footed without any of the flabby bass that mars so many over-ears.

With everything from Bob Dylan to Queen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the sound was punchy and fun.

Things got even better when the M-100 was paired up with my rig at home, which has FLAC files playing on my laptop through a Geek Out DAC to a classic Denon amplifier. The sound quality went up a notch and everything sounded much better.

But the sound signature of the M-100 is so V-shaped that the mids do suffer – whether used with my smartphone or the home rig, the mids sounded recessed and veiled, making the overall soundstage seem smaller than that of several other over ears.

Another quibble is the price of the M-100 — at almost Rs. 25,000, it isn’t exactly cheap, especially when several other over-ears with similar or better specs can be had for much less. If you have the cash to spare, like the design and a pure V-shaped sound signature, it’d be hard to ignore the M-100.

(This review originally appeared at hindustantimes.com here)

After a long break from blogging mainly because of work-related pressure, posting a piece that I wrote for the Hindustan Times to mark Satyajit Ray’s birth anniversary:

Nearly a quarter of a century after Satyajit Ray’s death, the jury is still out on whether a script written by the acclaimed director in 1967 was the genesis of Steven Spielberg’s hit E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

The story of The Alien is one of the stranger aspects of Ray’s long and storied career, one that involves celebrated sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke, Hollywood legends Peter Sellers, Marlon Brando and James Coburn, producer Ismail Merchant, Columbia Pictures and gregarious skin-diver-turned-producer Mike Wilson.

Ray and Clarke began corresponding after the director wrote to the author in 1964 to seek his endorsement for a sci-fi film club in Kolkata. The duo met in London after watching Stanley Kubrick film 2001, based on Clarke’s classic novel, and Ray spoke of a film he hoped to make about an alien and a young boy.

Clarke then mentioned Ray’s idea to Wilson, a skin-diver who once retrieved a chest of silver coins from a 17th century galleon and produced a film about a Sri Lankan secret agent named Jamis Banda. Wilson wasted no time in getting in touch with Ray, who responded to his offer to set up a co-production deal.

The Alien was to be based on “Bankubabur Bandhu” (Bankubabu’s Friend), a short story that Ray had written for his family magazine Sandesh in 1962. At a time when most sci-fi literature and films featured aliens bent on invading the earth, Ray’s script had a benign humanoid extra-terrestrial who befriends a young village boy named Haba.

The alien arrives in a spaceship that lands in a lotus-covered pond in a village of Bengal. The villagers think a golden spire, which is part of the spaceship, is a submerged temple and begin worshipping it. Other characters in the script are a hard-boiled journalist from Kolkata and an American engineer drilling tube-wells for a Marwari businessman based on G D Birla.

Things began to go wrong right from the time Ray began writing the script in Kolkata in early 1967. Wilson decided to join Ray at his flat and once the script was finished, Wilson copyrighted it in both their names though his only contributions – according to several accounts – were one change in the dialogue for the American character and the suggestion that the spaceship should be golden in colour.

Ray wrote a long account about his efforts to make The Alien in 1980, in which he said he zeroed in on Peter Sellers to play the Marwari businessman because he felt the presence of a big name in the cast would help him raise the budget needed for the film’s special effects. Besides, he believed Sellers “could do things with his voice and tongue which bordered on the miraculous” – a reference to the actor’s ability to portray an Indian.

Ray and Wilson met Sellers in Paris in April 1967 and the actor agreed to do the film even though he admitted he knew nothing about the director’s work. Ray even organised a special screening of Charulata that had Sellers in tears.

Soon after, Wilson invited Ray to Hollywood, saying Columbia would back the film and Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen were interested in playing the American engineer.

Ray went to Hollywood in June 1967 and held more meetings with Sellers, who was then filming Blake Edwards’ The Party, in which he played an Indian. It was then that Ray first developed misgivings about Sellers. “…it is  surely not right when a comedian with the caliber of Sellers cheerfully submits to the whims of a director who can think only in terms of belly-laughs, many of which were clearly not going to come off on the screen. Did Sellers not care enough? Or did he lack judgement?” Ray later wrote.

It was also at this time that Ray discovered his script, copies of which were being distributed by Columbia, had been jointly copyrighted by Wilson.

“I left Hollywood firmly convinced that The Alien was doomed,” he later wrote.

During a subsequent trip to London in October 1967, Ray made more unsettling discoveries – Wilson had kept a $10,000 advance from Columbia and positioned himself as an associate producer for the film even there was no agreement between the two men. It was around this time that James Coburn was suggested as a replacement for Brando to play the American engineer.

A few months later, Columbia said it would back the film if Ray could get Wilson to pull out. Wilson rejected Ray’s request to give up his copyright on the script, describing the director as a “thief and slanderer”.

In July 1968, Sellers – who had earlier told Ray he had not problems playing a secondary role in the film – wrote to Ray and said he could not contemplate doing the role as it was. Till that point, Sellers had written several letters to Ray in verse and the director decided to respond in kind.

“Dear Peter, if you had wanted a bigger part, Why, you should have told me right at the start. By disclosing it at this juncture, You have surely punctured The Alien-balloon, Which I daresay will be grounded soon, Causing a great deal of dismay, To Satyajit Ray,” the director said in his reply.

About a year after this, Arthur Clarke suddenly informed Ray that Wilson had shaved his head and gone off into the jungles to meditate. Wilson too wrote to Ray to say he was relinquishing his rights to the script of The Alien but the film never got off the ground.

Attempts were made by Hollywood big-wigs in subsequent decades, including producer Ismail Merchant, to get Ray to work on the film again but nothing much came of these efforts.

When Spielberg’s E.T. was released in 1982, there were several people – including Arthur Clarke – who pointed out the striking similarities with the script for The Alien, particularly the central relationship between a benign alien and a young boy. Other also pointed out that though E.T. was released by Universal, the project had begun at Columbia Pictures.

Spielberg denied copying from Ray’s script, saying he “was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood”.

Ray possibly had the last word on the matter when he said that E.T. would “not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies”.

Tekfusion Twinwoofers IEM

(Thanks to Tekfusion Technologies for loaning the Twinwoofers for this review.)

Tekfusion is a Bangalore-based IEM maker whose range of ‘phones is available from several e-tailers. Their Twinwoofers are lightweight all-metal in-ear ‘phones that come in two finishes – black chrome and white chrome.

The build quality of the Twinwoofers Black Chrome loaned to me for this review was sturdy but not spectacular. The strain relief at the base of the all-metal housings was adequate and the ‘phones come with a straight 3.5mm gold-plated connector.

The simple black paper packaging, which states the ‘phones are “Designed in India, Made in China”, included a shirt clip, three pairs of ear-tips of different sizes, two pairs of triple flange ear-tips and a smart black pouch. The medium sized ear-tips worked just fine for me, providing a more than adequate seal and isolation even in noisy environments.

On the plus side, these ‘phones have one of the most tangle-resistant cables I’ve ever come across. I’d roll up the cable after my daily commute and stuff the ‘phones into my pocket and they’d emerge hours later with virtually no tangles in the cable and ready to use within seconds. Microphonics, or the annoying rustling and thumping sounds caused by the cable brushing against clothes, was never a problem when the music was playing.

If you’re looking for earphones that you can use to answer calls and control music playback on your smartphones, these aren’t for you (though Tekfusion has the more expensive Twinwoofers M with in-line controls and an echo-cancelling microphone).

When I first began listening to the Twinwoofers on my Samsung Galaxy S3 playing MP3s ripped at 320 kbps through Poweramp, I was underwhelmed by the bass.  

The bass, to my ears, lacked the heft and slam of the Skullcandy 50-50 (which has become my go-to in-ear ‘phones these days.) But the sound changed rather dramatically after just a few days of usage as the bass firmed up quite a bit. It still lacked slam but was fast, tight and articulate.

After they were burned in over several days, the Twinwoofers had a nicely balanced sound and handled with aplomb a wide variety of music thrown at them, from Kayne West and Jay-Z’s “No Church In The Wild” to Queen’s “Love Of My Life” to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Shahbaaz Qalandar”.

(BTW, Tekfusion’s website even has a handy guide for burning in ‘phones using your laptop or PC that’s available here.)

I was especially struck by the Twinwoofers’ ability to retrieve detail. Even in noisy environments like Delhi’s streets, these ‘phones constantly surprised with their ability to pull out details even on busy tracks with layered sounds like Crowded House’s “Weather With You” and Peter Gabriel’s “Digging In The Dirt”.

Paired with my larger rig comprising a HP ProBook laptop playing CD-quality and high-res FLAC files through a Micromega MyDAC to a Denon PMA-717 amplifier, things got even better – the soundstage became much wider and the overall sound was more dynamic and punchy.  And they can be driven rather loud without losing their grip on a dynamic track like a high-res version of Daft Punk’s “Contact”.

The suggested retail price for the Twinwoofers is Rs 1,550 (about $25) but it’s available for a few hundred bucks less from several Indian e-tailers. At that price point, I have no hesitation recommending these ‘phones.

Signature Acoustics C-12

(Thanks to Pristine Note for loaning me the C-12 IEM for this review.)

The Signature Acoustics C-12 Elements in-ear monitors are probably the first Indian-made earphones aimed at the discerning buyer. Oh sure, there are lots of other Indian-made ‘phones, but a majority of them are tacky, cheaply made and sound like crap.

The C-12, on the other hand, is a thing of beauty put together with a lot of care. These IEMs have a wooden housing with plenty of visible grain, and the firm’s initials carved into the rear add a nice touch. The braided cable comprises 10 strands of wide copper wire under a protective sheath and splits towards the earphones from a piece of wood also embossed with the firm’s initials. pn2

The strain relief at the base of the housings and on the L-shaped 3.5 mm gold-plated stereo pin are of superior quality and, unlike a lot of ‘phones, these conveyed virtually no sounds when the cable brushed against clothes.

Did I say these ‘phones were an object of beauty? Add to that the accessories that come with it – a heavy carrying case hand-carved from brass blocks with an antique look (a touch impractical as I can’t see anyone lugging this around in their pant pocket but hey, it looks great sitting on a shelf) and a zippered leather pouch (which looks like it’ll stand up to a lot of abuse in the real world).

The C-12 (which retails for between Rs 2,550 and Rs 2,700 with the leather pouch and for between Rs 2,850 and Rs 3,100 with the metal case) comes with the usual three sets of ear-tips, a shirt clip and something I’ve never come across with other ‘phones – two filters of 180 microns and 250 microns that can be used on the nozzles to change the sound signature. I didn’t try to experiment with the filters as I didn’t want to go fiddle with metal pincers and used the default ones for most of my listening.

The sound? Well, when used with portable players or smartphones, the C-12 will be loved by people who like their bass. The makers of the C-12 describe its sound as “warm, bassy and fun when used with a neutral source player” and that’s more than accurate.

This isn’t flabby or loose bass and 320kbps MP3s of tracks like Moby’s “Lift Me Up” or Chicane and Bryan Adam’s “Don’t Give Up” sounded terrific with these ‘phones – there’s plenty to like about the slam and authority of the bass. pn3

Vocals come across nicely though the mids are a tad recessed. There’s a steep roll off of the highs from about 2 kHz and if, like me, you want a little more treble, you’ll have to play around with the equaliser on your player to coax the highs out of the C-12.

Isolation is good and the C-12’s sound isn’t fatiguing even with prolonged use.

Paired with my Denon PMA-717 amp playing CD-quality and high-res FLACs from my laptop via the Micromega MyDAC, the C-12 offered up a warm, robust and more balanced sound. These babies love power and handle it very well. The rolloff of the highs was still there but somehow, it was less noticeable.

I have a few minor quibbles about the C-12 though – the “L” and “R” markings on the housing aren’t easy to spot and the ear-tips weren’t the best I’ve come across. But as I said, these are minor quibbles. pn4

Signature Acoustics have got a lot of things right with the C-12 and I can’t wait to hear more products from this firm. They have shown they are capable of delivering and maybe their next ‘phones will hit the ball out of the park.

Ultimate Ears is a firm that traces its origins to Van Halen drummer Alex Van Halen’s difficulty in hearing the band’s other members during their high-decibel live performances. The band’s touring monitor engineer Jerry Harvey built custom moulded earphones for the drummer using a high frequency driver and a balanced armature transducer used in pacemakers.

Soon Harvey’s in-ear monitors were being used by musicians ranging from Engelbert Humperdinck to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Ultimate Ears initially focussed on in-ear monitors for professional musicians and high end custom-made earphones that require an appointment with an audiologist to create an impression of both ears.

After being acquired by Logitech in 2008, UE has targeted consumers using smartphones and portable music players, making headphones using its proprietary technology, but its products continue to be priced higher than those of other firms.

I picked up the Logitech UE 350 in-ear phones (which usually go for about $60) after finding them on sale at a Delhi store for Rs 1,500 (about $24). ue2

These are very plain looking phones – except for the silver rings around the earpieces, they are very low key and the strain relief, cable and overall construction seems to be very run of the mill.

The UE 350 comes in two versions – the “vi” meant for use with Apple products like iPhones and iPads and the “vm” for use with Android and other smartphones. You get five pairs of silicone ear-tips in different sizes and a protective hard case (which doesn’t look very hard and has a plastic hinge that I doubt will last very long).

Straight out of the box, these in-ears were among the lightest and most comfortable earphones I’ve ever used. The fit was snug and even in extended usage, I never experienced any discomfort. The isolation and seal was very good too, ensuring that the music came through loud and clear even in noisy environments.

They also required more burn-in than most other earphones – the sound settled down only after several weeks of regular use.

The one word that repeatedly came to mind during my listening sessions with the UE 350 was laidback – these ‘phones do not have the down and dirty charms of the Skullcandy 50/50 but then that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The highs were nice and airy, displaying no sizzle even when playing MP3s with Poweramp on my Galaxy S3. UE claims the 350 has “big bad bass” but that’s just marketing hype – the lows I heard were nice and punchy and there was no flabbiness.

It is the mids that are the Achilles heel of the UE 350 – a result of the largely v-shaped sound signature of the ‘phones. Fortunately, Poweramp has a great equaliser and after some fiddling about, I was able to compensate for this weakness. With the right equalisation, the mids and the overall sound improved, giving the UE 350 much more dynamism. ue1

Strangely, the weak mids were less noticeable when I used the UE 350 with my Denon PMA-717 amplifier fed with high-res FLACs from my laptop via the Micromega MyDAC. Without any form of equalisation, the sound was much more punchy and balanced.

Given the price I paid for the UE 350, I’m pretty happy with these earphones. But would I pay $60 for them? Hardly likely as I don’t think they’re worth that much.

phonesHow often have you looked at online reviews of headphones and earphones packed with fancy measurement graphs and colourful descriptions about their ability to handle highs, lows and mids and wondered whether there are simple tests to gauge the quality of your new set of earbuds or in-ears?

Well, there are several online resources that allow you to carry out some basic listening tests with your earphones or headphones and gauge their ability to handle a range of sounds. There are also some great lists of music that you can use to test your ‘phones.

This post provides links to some useful resources that can you can use to test your earphones and headphones.

The AudioCheck website offers some great, and very simple, tests to help you evaluate headphones or earphones online and get an idea about their performance. If you want, you can download the test files and put them in your portable player to test ‘phones when you go shopping.

These tests allow you to check stuff like frequency response, dynamic range, driver matching (whether the drivers on both sides sound the same) and their ability of the ‘phones to handle really deep bass. Follow the simple instructions provided along with the tests and you just can’t go wrong.

Another great resource is the Sensaphonics website, which allows you to check whether your in-ears or earbuds  provide a good, tight seal to ensure an adequate degree of isolation, which is essential for good sound in a real world situation, like a daily commute in the metro or while you’re out and walking about. (In my case, I don’t favour complete isolation as that can cut off all sounds and can be dangerous.)

On this website too, the tests can be conducted online or the files can be downloaded for use with your portable player. The summary of results provided on the page can give you an idea of the seal provided by your ‘phones.

The eminent-tech website contains some audio tests for speakers that folks believe can also be used to test ‘phones. The page has several test tones and pink noise that can be used to check your in-ears or headphones.

A word of caution – remember to turn down the volume before you carry out all these tests. Also, the tests on the eminent-tech website are more advanced and it’d probably be best to carry them out after you’ve done the other tests.

Happy testing!

2013 in review from WordPress

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,000 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

If Skullcandy has got a bad rep, the firm alone is to blame for putting out way too many poorly voiced earbuds with tacky construction. But Skullcandy had also shown it can come up with products like the Roc Nation Aviators that have earned good reviews.

I picked up the Skullcandy 50/50 during my search to replace the stock earbuds that came with my Samsung Galaxy S3, which sounded pretty crappy in real world situations like my daily commute on the Metro.

Even in a noisy shop, the 50/50 sounded the best of all the earbuds available for audition and I quite liked the price too – about Rs 2,700 (about $43) after a discount meant I could pick them up without burning a home in my pocket.

Though the 50/50, like all other Skullcandy earbuds, is available in a wide array of colours ranging from red to gray-and-hot lime (!), I chose the navy-and-gold because it looked the classiest of the lot. The inclusion of a mic meant the earbuds wouldn’t have to be removed to take phone calls. Image

The 50/50 features 11mm drivers, has an impedance of 16 ohms and comes with a nice metal carrying case (which I don’t think will survive very long in the real world as it uses very thin metal). Though they are easier to drive than the S3’s stock earbuds, the 50/50’s bass sounded a tad muddy in the first few days and I almost began to think I’d made a mistake by buying them. However, I decided to stick with them and burn them in over the next few days.

And what a change that made. After being played for several hours for just a few days, the sound settled down and the bass became much more rounded and articulate. Lively and dynamic were two words that repeatedly came to mind whenever I used the 50/50, so named because they are, according to Skullcandy, “half mic, half bud and all boom”. (BTW, Skullcandy, you’re doing these buds a disservice with such a description.)

The 50/50 excels with vocals, presenting them clearly without any colouration. But that it isn’t the only thing these earphones do well. Their balanced sound made it a joy to listen to everything from rock to jazz to world music. One night, after returning home from a long day at work at 11 pm, I sat on my favourite chair and extended my listening session with the 50/50 by almost 30 minutes simply because I was having so much fun.

I have to push the volume control on the Poweramp music player on my Galaxy S3 phone (playing only MP3s ripped at 320 kbps) to about the 2 o’clock position to drive most earbuds but with the 50/50, I had to dial down things a little as they sounded rock solid and clear even at the 12 o’clock position.

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None of the three pairs of ear plugs supplied with the 50/50 were a good fit and I finally decided to stick with the plugs from the S3’s earbuds, which fit me perfectly. Isolation was very good and the 50/50 was terrific in real world situations, shutting off enough of the ambient noise in Metro trains to make sure the music came through loud and clear, with just enough lows and airy highs.

I don’t usually use earbuds for listening on my main rig at home comprising a laptop running foobar and jRiver hooked up via a Micromega MyDAC to a Denon PMA-717 amplifier, but even here the 50/50 sounded rather decent.

If I have quibbles about the 50/50, one would be the slightly recessed and rolled off highs, which comes across especially when listening to jazz. But then these are just moderately priced earbuds and maybe I’m expecting too much. The plating used on the metal parts of the earbuds isn’t very good and began peeling off after a few days while the flat cables get tangled easily if you have a habit of stuffing your earphones into a pocket. And the control on the mic for changing and pausing tracks works just fine but the control for adjusting volume produced no response on my Android phone.

But all minor cons – given the sound of these earbuds, I can easily live with these problems.

When you crack open the package holding the Smile Jamaica in-ear headphones from the House of Marley, it’s hard not to like the earbuds. I mean at this price point (Rs 1999 or about $30), I have seen few earphones that look as good as these ones. Image

A nice earpiece made of beech wood (with 8mm moving coil drivers), colourful ear-tips and a fabric-covered cable in the Rasta colours of red, gold and green – if nothing else, these earphones are gorgeous.

The sound, however, is another matter. More on that later in this review.

The earphones were burnt in over a period of about three weeks by playing a wide range of music before I got down to some serious listening.

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The earphones were mainly tested with my Samsung Galaxy S3 with a bunch of MP3s, all ripped at 320 kbps and playing through the Poweramp music player, and with my main music system that has FLACs and high-res files played by a HP ProBook 4530s laptop through a Micromega MyDAC to a Denon PMA 717 amplifier.

And this is where everything seemed to go south. Every musician, from Tony Bennett to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, seemed to be afflicted by a chest cold on these earphones. The music seemed to be behind a veil, overpowered by too much muddy bass, gasping for air and life.

During critical listening late at night on my main rig, I struggled hard to find something redeeming about the Smile Jamaica and usually gave up in frustration.

Even a hi-res FLAC of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” at 24 bit/192 kHz, played back on the laptop through Foobar with WASAPI came across as dull and lifeless.

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Just about the only time the Smile Jamaica sounded good was during my daily commute on Delhi’s Metro, when its strange sound signature helped overcome all ambient noises and the earbuds managed to sound decent. But even then, the highs sounded recessed.

On the plus side, the sound isolation with the ear plugs supplied with the earphones was rather good.

I truly wanted to like the Smile Jamaica – it has its heart in the right place, what with its use of recyclable aluminium and plastic and it has one of the most tangle-free cords I’ve ever come across – but it’s let down by its sound. For about Rs 2,000, there are far too many other better options.

Look ma – my foobar has VU meters!

Much as I love the music flowing from my laptop into my amplifier, I found it hard to bring myself to like the cold, sterile interface of my computer’s audio player. That is until I found a way to add analog VU meters to my foobar2000 music player.

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The meters do not in any way enhance the sonic qualities of the music files being played on the laptop but they certainly look cool and add a nice sort-of-analog touch.

As with everything related to tweaking foobar, adding the VU meters to the player isn’t very straightforward but this page on head-fi.org explains how you can do it. Above all, have patience. The greatest strength of foobar – the capability to tweak it so it looks and sounds exactly the way you want it – is also one of its most frustrating aspects for those like me who are noobs when it comes to tech.

This page on head-fi has additional ways to customise the look of your foobar player. Happy skinning.

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