Wireless speakers compared in depth

It's 2017. There shouldn't really be a good reason why you'd still be forced to run speaker wire among a bunch of speakers to get a 5.1 setup. You also shouldn't still need a receiver.

And indeed, you don't need an amp or annoying wires if you look at the growing crop of quality wireless speakers. You simply plug in the speakers, set them up with their app, then connect to them wirelessly from your smartphone/tablet/computer. This reduces wire clutter to one power cord per speaker.

There are downsides, however. After buying and testing three sets of wireless speakers, I'm still an unsatisfied customer, as you'll see in the Conclusion.

Wireless speakers can be for indoor or outdoor use. Indoor speakers need to be plugged into a power outlet, typically use Wi-Fi, and are aimed at music playback and (rarely) home theater systems. Outdoor speakers are called "portable", have rechargeable batteries, use Bluetooth, and many are water-resistant or even waterproof. Some can even charge other devices (phones) from their batteries.

Portable speakers

I haven't tested any of these, but the winners seem to be:

  • Aiwa Exos-9 - rave reviews, 5/5 stars on Amazon out of 700+ reviews, and just badass: 200 watts, 57Wh battery, and you can

    LINK TWO Exos-9s FOR MASSIVE SOUND - Link two units together in either a dual stereo or stereo separated configuration to entertain a 75-guest party that will surely draw the attention of your neighbors and local authorities.

  • JBL Charge 3 - compact, actually portable, waterproof and very durable. Can charge your phone.
  • UE BOOM 2 Phantom - waterproof, shockproof, and can be linked to 50+ other speakers (probably for some sort of party between a silent disco and a rave).


The two main types of wireless connections that speakers get their data over are Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Newer Bluetooth speakers can be paired in stereo configurations; look for one of those. Stereo sounds noticeably nicer than two mono speakers - though if you're not in the general center of the distance between speakers, and depending on acoustics, one speaker can easily drown out the other.

If you want surround/5.1 configurations, you need speakers that work over Wi-Fi, or over their own wireless protocol. The options are far more limited: Sonos, Play-Fi, WISA and of course various proprietary Wi-Fi standards/protocols like Bose SoundTouch, which limit you to speakers from that manufacturer (not necessarily a huge problem).

Another way to get "wireless" speakers is to buy a bunch of Chromecast Audio dongles or Bluetooth aptX dongles (about $35, see below) and attach them to whatever speakers you already have.

If you go with Wi-Fi, make sure you have a quality router. Play-Fi recommends a dual-band router with at least "600" in its class (but note that router classes are marketing BS). I can't yet recommend a quality router because with each of the ones I tested, I've had pretty terrible connectivity problems, which I wasn't able to attribute to the speakers or router exclusively, and it's surprisingly non-trivial to test wireless connection reliability.

That said, we'll look at each of these connectivity options and speaker types in more useful detail than you typically find on sites like CNET or Lifewire (<rant>they mention "doesn't work away from the home" next to all Wi-Fi speakers. Actually if you bought a $40 travel router, all those would work "away from the home" (such as, I guess, in the barn), but that's not the point. Wi-Fi protocols aren't used in portable speakers! Talk about lag instead, you weirdos.</rant>)

Bluetooth, aptX, and aptX-LL

Before we go forward, a note about Bluetooth: it's great for playing audio, but if you want to play audio in sync with anything visual (TV, video, smart lights), you'll want fast Bluetooth, without lag. Maybe you've noticed that typical Bluetooth speakers or headphones have a lag of about 1 second behind the sound. That is, when you change songs or pause, it will take a bit for the audio to catch up after you tapped "Next" or "Pause".

This Bluetooth lag has been fixed by a codec called "aptX", which reduces the latency to ~100ms (about two video frames at 25fps, so you may not notice it, but if you watch closely, you can). There's an even faster "aptX Low Latency" codec, and the difference between aptX(-LL) and the default Bluetooth codec (SBC) is very well illustrated in this video, which also shows a great way to test the lag.

Bluetooth aptX vs. aptX-LL (Low Latency)

If you're buying Bluetooth equipment, you want aptX support at least. Note that Apple missed the boat and the iPhone 7 still doesn't support aptX.

The absence of lag is the major advantage of aptX, despite the debates about quality that you might read about online. In fact, Bluetooth can technically transmit MP3 directly from the audio source to the audio "sink" (speaker, headphones etc.) if both support MP3, and above 128-160kbps, you can't really hear any artifacts created by compression; your listening environment (A/C, fridge or traffic noise etc.) will matter more. Also, aptX HD doesn't offer any perceptible quality difference over aptX.

If the speakers or your device don't support aptX, you can get a ~$30 Bluetooth transmitter with aptX-LL support such as the Avantree USB dongle (it will appear to your computer as an audio card) or the Taotronics transmitter/receiver, which you can plug into any 3.5mm audio jack and enable that device to transmit its audio out over low-latency Bluetooth aptX-LL, or receive audio over Bluetooth and pipe it to the line-in input of speaker.

I have an LG Infinim HBS900 Bluetooth headset with aptX support. In my tests, there was near-perfect audio/video lip sync between this headset and my Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (which supports aptX), so I used that as a baseline.

The Avantree dongle and the LG headset (even though the dongle only connected over aptX, not aptX-LL) also seemed to offer near-perfect sync. I really had to pay attention when a person in a movie uttered words with consonants like 'P' or 'B' to notice any lip-sync issues. So aptX Low Latency might not offer a perceptible improvement either, but when I tested using an audio cable splitter as shown in the video I linked above, I could easily tell that aptX was delayed compared to the wired connection.

Also, I did note that two aptX-LL adapters do lead to a perceptible difference: I've paired the Avantree plugged into my laptop with the TaoTronics linked above, and there was a perceptible delay. Very small (~100ms I'd guess), but perceptible if you pay attention, more easily than just one aptX delay.

So I'd recommend buying hardware with aptX-LL integrated, if you care about audio/video sync, and aptX if you just don't want lag.


Like Bluetooth, this solution is designed to bring wired speakers or TVs into a Wi-Fi ecosystem. Chromecasts are powered line-in or HDMI dongles and come in three flavors: ChromeCast Audio ($35), Chromecast ($35, makes a TV wireless), and ChromecastUltra ($70 like Chromecast but supports 4K). I haven't tested Chromecast because my time and any frustrations the regular Chromecast might cause vs. the Ultra is worth more than the $35 difference.

The Chromecasts integrate with Google Home: "Hey Google, play chill music on Chromecast", or "Play Humans are Awesome from YouTube on my TV".

From Android devices, you can cast your entire device's audio to ChromecastAudio, or your screen to ChromecastUltra.

You can plug ChromecastAudios into multiple speakers and output the same audio to all of them, but you can't configure them into stereo or surround configurations as you can with Play-Fi speakers.

The Google Play Music app supports ChromecastAudio but doesn't let you play local files! It forces you to upload them to Google Play Music (yes, same name, but the online storage), which does give hosting for 50,000 songs for free (make sure you have licenses for them?). To upload the songs, you must either download a desktop app ("Music Manager"), or use a Chrome extension with crappy ratings (2/5, out of 2000+ reviewers) and scary permissions. There's an identically named Google Play Music Chrome app with better reviews, but it turns out it's just a bookmark for https://play.google.com/music/listen (I despise those kinds of "apps").

Onward to comparing wireless speakers. As a general note, I'm not an audiophile, and above a certain price, speakers may sound well enough that the meaningful differences come from ease of setup, connectivity and reliability. Or they sound "different", each in their own good way.


Sonos is the most popular and the most stable wireless speaker offering. It's the Apple/iPhone of multi-room wireless speaker systems. From what I've read, the app is neat and they tend to work without a hitch. The Sonos app also lets you map the acoustics of your environment (you walk around your room with the phone emitting special calibration tones) so the system can digitally compensate, for optimum sound quality.

Like Apple though, you're restricted to what you can do with them. For instance, you can't just play whatever audio your device makes. This is a complete deal-breaker for me, as I want to just pipe the audio from my computer/Android phone/TV/whatever I want into the speakers. But with the Sonos, you can't: no audioboos, no podcasts, no sound from the TV. You can only play from online music services like Pandora and Spotify (and many more, to be fair). Those are great and often good enough, but not if you have local media or just want control. You're also locked into Sonos products only.

Sonos doesn't work with Google Home. My colleagues at Google from the Home team would love to add support for Sonos, but the protocol is closed.

For these reasons, I haven't looked into Sonos. If you run an Apple ecosystem though, you can probably just buy into Sonos and be happy.


DTS Play-Fi is an open standard allowing speakers from any compatible manufacturer to be linked in stereo or surround configurations, and to play audio from a variety of sources: online streaming services, DLNA, USB, aux/line-in, AirPlay, Bluetooth (though you can't rebroadcast Bluetooth through more than one speaker). It also allows other devices (e.g. receivers) to hook into the speakers over Wi-Fi.

Play-Fi is great in theory, but not very widely supported yet (though many manufacturers are adopting it). If you want to just allow pretty much any device (or someone with a device) to send audio to your speakers, you'll want Bluetooth support, which is ubiquitous.

Therefore, we have a powerful criterion for selecting speakers: Play-Fi and Bluetooth aptX support.

However, the fact that Play-Fi doesn't support rebroadcasting from Bluetooth really sucks a little if you have any sort of sound source that outputs only Bluetooth, or if you want to make a source wireless by using a Bluetooth aptX-LL transmitter. I have a haptic/physical sound system, the Subpac M2 (super fun!), which has Bluetooth input and a line-out jack. It you want to enjoy the music + beats solo, no problem - plug in some headphones. But if you want to pass through the sound to speakers (and not be tethered to them), pretty much the only option is a Bluetooth transmitter (I don't know of a transmitter with line-in input and... Play-Fi output?). Given that Play-Fi can't rebroadcast Bluetooth in stereo, if you want more than one speaker, you need to get another Bluetooth aptX receiver, and plug its line out into one speaker, and hope it supports Line-in Streaming (neither the Phorus, nor the Wrens do).

Play-Fi speakers with Bluetooth aptX support

As of April 2017, there are very few Play-Fi speakers with Bluetooth aptX support:

Play-Fi app

First, a word about the Play-Fi apps.

All speakers use the same rebranded app, and Play-Fi recommends that it doesn't matter which app you use. Every speaker I've tested needed a firmware update during setup. The Android app is huge, 68Mb. What the heck it needs 68Mb for, I have no idea. Even Chrome, a full browser and operating system if you think about it, is smaller. It also needs location access to find the speakers, but this is an Android limitation (even Google Home needs it to find Chromecasts).

I found the Android app pretty confusing, and the speaker setup process highly frustrating. I had to reboot the speakers three times in order to change the wireless network they were on, and I had to reboot my Samsung GS7 too.

Play-Fi has special support for Windows, with the ability to play sound in sync with video. Since I use Linux, I haven't tested this or the iOS app.

Some problems with the Android app:

  1. Lag. There's a lag of 2-3 seconds when starting/pausing/resuming music, switching songs, seeking or changing the volume. This doesn't seem to be a problem with the Play-Fi protocol itself if the "audio/video in perfect sync" claims made by the Windows app are true (unless the Windows driver simply delays the video to compensate for the audio lag). It's unclear though whether the Windows app is a true sound driver or some sort of add-on that only works with select media players so that if you want to use your own, you're out of luck.
  2. You can't stream from your phone to more than one speaker group (or "zone" - I'm still unclear as to what exactly the difference is) because your local music is considered a "service" and you can only use one speaker group/zone per service. #facepalm
  3. Connectivity issues galore. The most reliable solution was to reboot my phone and keep location services enabled (Play-Fi uses it to find speakers) whenever I tried to set up speakers (that includes changing Wi-Fi networks).

Phorus PS5

Loved the product page for this speaker. Clear, to the point (no marketing BS like most other speaker product pages), spelling out the specs including Play-Fi, Bluetooth aptX and pairing left/right speakers for true stereo. It's old - released before March 2015, and didn't gain popularity - only 20 reviews on Amazon in two years. No mention of whether you can pair more than two, though Play-Fi itself claims you can set any speakers in a surround configuration.

So far, the quality is surprisingly good, only somewhat less rich then the Oppo Sonica, which is priced at $300/speaker. Connectivity, though, is terrible.

While setting up the speakers (far from a smooth process), one of them had a name consisting of two Chinese characters.

Missing features

  • The speakers don't support Play-Fi Line-in Streaming. If you plug in a device via a 3.5mm cable into one of the speakers, only that speaker will play audio. The manufacturer confirmed on Amazon and in an e-mail:

    It's a relatively new one in the Play-Fi system, and currently only newer products are beginning to support it.

    That does seem to be the case, as even more expensive speakers like the Definitive Technology W7 don't support line-in streaming either.

  • Bluetooth rebroadcast to both speakers is also not supported, and I've confirmed with Play-Fi support that the statement from Phorus is correct:

    The wireless stereo pair functionality of Play-Fi is only for Wi-Fi sources, such as those through a Play-Fi app (like the Phorus app), or Spotify Connect.

  • You can't control the left/right balance. As in, there are no controls on the speakers or in the app. I tried to confirm this with the manufacturer, and apparently you can't control the balance (though I'm not sure they really understood my question). This will be a problem if your listening area is not in the center between the speakers, or if you need to control the balance due to the acoustics of the room. Hopefully your sound source has balance control (e.g. the sound controls on your computer).


Reliability is poor: the app showed "Searching for Play-Fi Devices" or "Playback will resume shortly / Connecting to speaker" all the time (and it never connected on its own). Also, when you tap the speakers in the app, that breaks the connection. You're far batter off using Spotify directly and picking the Phorus stereo pair from the list of output devices. Playback skips for no good reason (the song I've tested with is offline, and I'm connected on my wireless LAN) and it may resume for only one speaker.

A day after renaming the speakers in the app according to their location, their Bluetooth names are still "Play-Fi Spk0324a3" and "Play-Fi Spk0320a3" (not even "Phorus"). Let alone that I paired them as a stereo pair, and that should be the device to show up in the Bluetooth list. Unlike the Oppo, if you play through one of the Bluetooth speakers of the pair, the audio only comes out of that speaker, no stereo. Predictably, trying to pair my laptop to both speakers fails when I attempt to pair to the second.

After giving up on Bluetooth and using the Play-Fi app to set up a stereo configuration, I played audio alternatively between the Phoruses and the Wrens, to do a sound quality test. After resetting one of the Wren speakers and switching to the Phoruses, the pair outputted sound only one one of the speakers (weird, I know; welcome to wireless speakers). I had to re-create their stereo pair.

All in all, the speakers have been more than frustrating to use and set up, and I could not enjoy music through them.

Wren V5US

These are the most expensive speakers I've tested so far, at $500 a piece. However, I wasn't able to get them to connect on the first try, let alone in a stereo pair. One of them failed to update its firmware a few times, and the other emits a soft whining sound at all times (I can hear it through soft music too). Wren support has been very helpful in offering to replace the faulty speaker, even though I didn't buy it directly form them.

Bluetooth was broken too: I could connect my laptop to one speaker but no sound would come out, and I connected the Avantree transmitter to the other and sound was horribly distorted.

The speakers can be paired in a stereo configuration but don't support streaming from line-in, so using a Chromecast won't help.

While in my experience they sound better than the Oppo Sonica ($300) and the Phorus PS5 ($200), "this isn't an audiophile speaker by any stretch", according to a 2.5/5 review. Only 4+4 reviews on Amazon (why the product pages are separate, beats me).

The app is just the Play-Fi app rebranded for Wren, and it referred to some non-existent buttons on the speakers. Not impressed.

Worst, after finally managing to connect the speakers, I just couldn't get the speakers to keep playing. They stopped after 5-10 minutes abruptly, and the app displays "Communication lost". I've been using a dual-band ASUS RT-AC68U router, which while admittedly launched in 2013, is way more powerful than what Play-Fi needs, according to Phorus. The stereo configuration dropped to only one speaker after playing a song on repeat twice. Then while playing a Spotify playlist, the remaining speaker completely disappeared from the list of Spotify devices, mid-song.

Later, I've reinstalled the Wren-specific Play-Fi app (which the DTS Play-Fi app recommends in an "IMPORTANT NOTE" to install, contrary to this page) and the speakers were much more stable. However, once every hour or two, the volume would randomly go up by 2-3 notches in one or both of the speakers in the stereo configuration (I was playing music from Spotify). The speaker was in an odd state: power button light off, Wi-Fi light on, and playing audio.

One time the audio from Spotify got out of sync by about half a second between the speakers.

Wireless speakers without Play-Fi support

These speakers cannot be grouped in configurations of 3+, so they aren't a good path forward if you plan to upgrade to 5.1 / surround, but they're still a decent option (you can sell them and buy whatever Play-Fi devices will be available when you decide to upgrade).

Oppo Sonica

Great sounding speakers with good bass and very competitively priced at $300 a pop. Designed in Silicon Valley - I picked mine up from the manufacturer in Menlo Park, CA and made sure to update them to the latest firmware as of April 2nd, 2017: 27-0120.

Unfortunately the connection is unreliable and there are a few annoying shortcomings:

  1. The connection will sometimes drop and only one speaker will sound for a few seconds (tested over Bluetooth from my laptop and from my S7 Edge). This completely kills the mood. Worse, as I was writing this review, the Sonicas completely lost signal or volume, out of the blue. Spotify appears to be playing fine, but no sound is coming out. Changing the output to the Phorus speakers confirmed it wasn't a Spotify problem. I pressed the volume up button on one Sonica speaker, but still silence. Changed phones, nothing. Re-added the speakers in the app, nothing. I could re-connect to the speakers over Bluetooth, and after that, trying to play again from Spotify worked. But this is definitely NOT something I'm willing to do when I have a party or guests over.

    • This just happened again while playing from Spotify to the Sonica pair (not over Bluetooth), and coincided with my Internet connection going down for a minute. The speakers recovered on their own eventually, but the failure mode was weird: one speaker went silent, while the other continued to play music (with skips). Note that the song I was playing on Spotify was downloaded locally, and the speakers and my phone are connected over my wireless LAN, which bridges to the hotspot via a Securify Almond 3 router. So the LAN was fine at all times, and there was no reason for playback to be interrupted.

    • To make sure my Securify Almond 3 router wasn't the problem, I shelled out $150 for an ASUS RT-AC68U dual-band AC1900 router. This is beyond the N600 specs recommended for Play-Fi devices, so Oppo has no excuse if there are connectivity issues (unless even this router loses packets, which is a possibility, but one would hope for more resilience around that). And indeed, there were. I was playing the same song on repeat over Bluetooth from my laptop to the stereo configuration, and 10 minutes in, I lowered the volume one notch. I don't know if this was the cause or a coincidence (unacceptable in either case), but the secondary speaker stopped playback.

      Went to Spotify, played the same song, and the secondary speaker was delayed about 1 second behind the main one. After that I was unable to get any sound out of the speakers, or add them again, after resetting the network connection three times.

    • In another test today (2017-04-15), I left a song to play on repeat on my laptop through Bluetooth to the Sonicas while I was away. Got back after 40 minutes and the laptop was playing the song on its internal speakers, meaning the Bluetooth connection dropped.

    • Over DLNA (using the pulseaudio-dlna Linux driver), if stereo-paired, the speakers appear as one, which is great, and neither of the Play-Fi speakers do this. The connection is also far more reliable than Bluetooth, with maybe a few seconds dropped per hour.

    • Line-in worked with some devices but not the day I tested with the Chromecast Audio. Couldn't tell why. I plugged the ChromecastAudio into a dumb speaker and sound came out. Didn't plug in another device into the Sonicas that day.

All in all, I can't trust the speakers to play offline songs for more than one hour over Bluetooth without interruptions, if they connect at all.

  1. The Bluetooth connection doesn't support aptX. The lag makes them unusable for watching any content (audio and video will be out of sync). However, they support line-in stereo streaming, so you can plug in an aptX-LL receiver.

  2. After you pair them as stereo, they still appear individually in the list of Bluetooth devices. Not a big issue, since after you connect to one of them, music will play out of both.

  3. The Android app needs some improvements:

    • Every time I start it, it resets the Wi-Fi connection, then complains there were "No Sonica Devices Found", then finds the speakers I had set up. This is probably because the app tries to connect to wireless hotspots created by Sonica speakers for setup, but it's annoying.

    • If you play a local song on repeat and the phone screen turns off automatically, playback will stop at the end of the song. Super annoying if this also happens with playlists.

    • The design is a little weird. For example, buttons are tiny text placed at the top of the screen (e.g. a tiny "+" to add speakers, or "Add" in the opposite corner to confirm adding a speaker). I almost missed them and wondered how in the world you'd add speakers. There are good design principles out there (e.g. Material Design for Android). No need to come up with unique design choices when it comes to button placement.

    • The app claims it lets you organize your favorite music, but favoriting the currently playing song in Spotify is impossible (there's a tiny star icon, but it does nothing when you tap it).

Other than that, the speakers have many positives:

  • Loud, with good bass, can fill a 500 sq ft room with sound even at medium volume
  • Carefully designed to be unobtrusive - you can turn off all the LEDs, for example
  • They also support rebroadcast streaming from the line-in input or Bluetooth: both speakers will play the audio, in stereo. Interestingly, Play-Fi doesn't support Bluetooth rebroadcast.
  • Moving a speaker during playback was painless. It simply reconnected after I powered it on at the new location, and resume playing its part of the stereo pair output.

WISA (Wireless Speaker and Audio Association)

This open standard is serious about high-quality wireless audio, e.g. <5ms lag, and <1 microsecond speaker-to-speaker delay. Like Play-Fi, it supports speakers from any compliant manufacturer, so you can easily start with a sound bar, then scale up with a subwoofer, then upgrade all the way to a 7.1 system.

There are very few WISA products out, and for some reason, the WISA website doesn't list them. They also tend to be quite expensive or unavailable. Amazon lists only four "wisa" products as of April 2, 2017. Of those, one isn't a speaker, another is not available, the third is very expensive and poorly rated, but the last one seems to be the winner.

Enclave Audio CineHome HD 5.1 - we have a winner!

This 5.1 wireless system has a 4.5 rating on Amazon (43 reviews) and has received positive reviews elsewhere. It's called Enclave Audio. They explain the differences between WISA and Bluetooth or Wi-Fi (and Sonos), but don't discuss Play-Fi.

At $1200, this 5.1 system was only marginally more expensive than two WREN speakers ($1000), and in the meantime the price came down to $1000. After the Phorus/Oppo/Wren rigmarole, I bought the Enclave and never looked back, especially after they released a remote control app.

Here's my review on Amazon:

Combined with an inexpensive Comcast Audio, the Enclave system is truly wireless - you only connect speakers to outlet power, and you're set. They communicate over their own WISA protocol, which offers zero latency and doesn't interfere with your Wi-Fi. There's an app to remotely control the speaker set (individual speaker volumes, Dolby settings, input selection, firmware update etc). Before the app was released, you had to connect the Enclave to a TV via HDMI in order to set it up, but this is no longer necessary.

With the Chromecast Audio, the Enclave works perfectly with Google Home.

Note that by default, the level of the back monitor speakers is rather low. If you're listening to music, you won't get much of a "surround" effect even if you sit in the middle of the setup. Most sound goes to the front speakers and center unit, by default. Use the remote control app to increase the Rear Level. Once you do this and listen to tracks that make full use of 5+1, the effect is really neat. Listen to Joey Fehrenbach - Kilpatrick! from Spotify, kick back, and enjoy :)

One minor nit: if there's a power brownout, the default input may reset from your setting to HDMI. Use the app to fix it, or ask Enclave support to send you a different power brick with better brownout tolerance.


Each of the three speakers I've tested, Phorus, Oppo Sonica, and Wren, have been a pain to set up and keep connected. I had to reset the speakers numerous times, and I still don't feel confident their apps will detect them tomorrow.

If you do manage to set up the speakers, the connection can drop out of the blue, or skips, or one of the speakers loses signal. This has been so pervasive with all three speakers that I've wasted more time getting them to work (and failing) that it would've taken me to professionally lay speaker wire in the entire house. I've used two routers throughout the process.

Unlike wired speakers, where there isn't much that can go wrong, wireless speakers can have a host of issues:

  • Finicky to set up
  • Reliability is poor - connections drop out of the blue
  • There's a lag of 1 to 3 seconds, over both Bluetooth and Play-Fi. You can mitigate this with aptX-LL dongles.
  • The apps are buggy and oddly designed
  • You can't easily use the speakers with a computer as you'd use wired speakers, i.e. play whatever sound your computer outputs. Wireless speakers seem to be perversely designed to work with online streaming services (let me guess - revenue share agreements with Pandora, Spotify etc?), so trying to stream your own music is almost always an afterthought. Play-Fi supports streaming in sync with video but only on Windows. For speakers that supports DLNA (whether Play-Fi or not), there is open source software that can stream your computer's sound output to them:
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