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Old 05-01-2013, 05:35 PM
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Audiophile Question: Linear Tracking vs Standard Turntables


I was looking on ebay, and noticed they have quite a bit of old stereo stuff for sale. IN the days of analog stereo, record turntables came in two styles-standard, where the tone arm would describe a slight arc as it traversed the record. Then there were the very expensive "linear tracking" type (made by Bang and Olufson)-thee tone arms were advanced by a worm gear mechanism, such that the arm stayed perfectly parallel to the direction of the stylus.
My question: did all of this complexity actually buy you anything? Or was the so-called "liner tracking" a benefit that existed mainly in the minds of its adherents? (as I suspect)?
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Old 05-01-2013, 06:28 PM
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This could turn into just another digital vs analog thing, but given the inherent crudity of dragging an industrial diamond across a piece of bumpy vinyl and amplifying its vibrations, I fail to see how the tiny change in the tangent angle from the beginning of the groove to its end could possibly make any perceptible difference in sound (considering that the needle's point of contact is just that, a nearly length-less point).

Best thing linear tracking turntables gave you was auto-track finding...
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Old 05-01-2013, 07:21 PM
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IIRC, it was mostly woo. Also, IIRC, it only provided a difference with records that hadn't been played a lot on a radial turntable - their grooves had been affected.
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Old 05-01-2013, 07:23 PM
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Linear tracking died off shortly after the CD became available and has not been revived by any of the really high-end manufacturers. I'm thinking it was an audio fad invented to delay the complete takeover of digital media. It may have had some benefit but not enough for the audiophiles to keep it around.

Many of the linear tonearms used a P-Mount cartridge. I dumped mine about five years ago because I couldn't find cartridges any more. Still have a nice conventional turntable.
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Old 05-02-2013, 01:42 AM
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I'm sure there is a very small set of people with incredibly sensitive hearing who could hear a difference between one method pf playback and another. I dunno, 1 or 2 percent of the population, maybe less. For the vast majority of listeners, the distinctions were to small and subtle to be noticeable.

And a third group was the marketing geniuses, whose genius idea was to convince the 98% of listeners that they were in reality among the 1 or 2 percent of the most discerning audiophiles that would truly benefit from the pricey audio gear that you would need to appreciate the difference.

Really, it is the same issues with changing from analogue to CDs. With a very high end system and scrupulously recorded and maintained disks, some people could clearly hear difference between analogue and digital. Most people couldn't, or didn't care enough to invest in the kind of system it would take to appreciate the best qualities of vinyl over digital.
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Old 05-02-2013, 08:32 AM
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Originally Posted by Nunzio Tavulari View Post
Linear tracking died off shortly after the CD became available and has not been revived by any of the really high-end manufacturers. I'm thinking it was an audio fad invented to delay the complete takeover of digital media. It may have had some benefit but not enough for the audiophiles to keep it around.

Many of the linear tonearms used a P-Mount cartridge. I dumped mine about five years ago because I couldn't find cartridges any more. Still have a nice conventional turntable.
Being an audiophile I remember those linear tracking turntables well. Regardless of their claims we knew they were less an 'audio' improvement than they were an 'interface' one. IOW you didn't have to manually pick up & move the tone arm anymore (audiophiles did NOT use clunky, mechanical 'record changers', we had direct-drive, revolution-speed fine-tuning, strobe light measured manual ones). The linear tracking arm was now electronically controlled with a groove-space reading track sensor, which was a big improvement.

What was a huge (and rather ridiculous) marketing gimmick were vertical turn tables. Yes, you mounted the record onto a latching, vertical platter and the tone arm hung down like a pendulum. They were also linear tracking but were even more expensive. I forget the supposed logic to them being 'better', put less stress on the vinyl maybe? Nothing more than $700 Monster Cable, pure bullshit...
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Old 05-02-2013, 08:47 AM
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Originally Posted by Nunzio Tavulari View Post
Linear tracking died off shortly after the CD became available and has not been revived by any of the really high-end manufacturers. I'm thinking it was an audio fad invented to delay the complete takeover of digital media. It may have had some benefit but not enough for the audiophiles to keep it around.

Many of the linear tonearms used a P-Mount cartridge. I dumped mine about five years ago because I couldn't find cartridges any more. Still have a nice conventional turntable.
So how many times could a vinyl record be played before the sound degraded? My guess is that audiophiles avoided playing their treasured records..to avoid "destroying the sound"!
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Old 05-02-2013, 09:18 AM
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Linear trackers were less susceptible to skipping due to general thumps and bumps that would make a regular turntable skip.
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Old 05-02-2013, 10:39 AM
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I paid $500, a fortune, for a used Bang & Olafson Beogram 4002 linear tracking turntable back in... Well, I forget. Late 70s, probably. I still have it, still use it. Bought a new cartridge in their Las Vegas store a few years ago.

I have no idea whether I can hear any difference it would make. But it's a wonderful piece of machinery. It's never had any problems in those 30+ years, and that's without any maintenance. (I don't know what you could do or would do, for that matter.) It's my favorite toy of all time. Every time I move the tonearm to a specific spot on the record I marvel anew.

Everybody should have one.
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Old 05-02-2013, 10:56 AM
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Originally Posted by Exapno Mapcase View Post
I paid $500, a fortune, for a used Bang & Olafson Beogram 4002 linear tracking turntable back in... Well, I forget. Late 70s, probably. I still have it, still use it. Bought a new cartridge in their Las Vegas store a few years ago.

I have no idea whether I can hear any difference it would make. But it's a wonderful piece of machinery. It's never had any problems in those 30+ years, and that's without any maintenance. (I don't know what you could do or would do, for that matter.) It's my favorite toy of all time. Every time I move the tonearm to a specific spot on the record I marvel anew.

Everybody should have one.
Audiophile-rific! Do you know if it has value as a desirable component today?
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Old 05-02-2013, 11:06 AM
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Originally Posted by ralph124c View Post
So how many times could a vinyl record be played before the sound degraded? My guess is that audiophiles avoided playing their treasured records..to avoid "destroying the sound"!
I was never a high-end audiophile, but records did noticeably degrade after only a few plays. Plus, every time you handled them there was always the risk of more dirt and scratches. Nothing sucked more than a treasured record developing a pop or skip that you couldn't clean.

I instead had a high-end cassette deck that I'd record my vinyl on, and then play the hell out of the cassettes, only pulling out the vinyl if I needed to record another tape.

Last edited by GargoyleWB; 05-02-2013 at 11:07 AM. Reason: clean up lolcats grammar
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Old 05-02-2013, 11:24 AM
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Audiophile-rific! Do you know if it has value as a desirable component today?
There are a few for sale on eBay, all around that same $500 point. I don't know anything more than that.
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Old 05-02-2013, 11:26 AM
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There are a few for sale on eBay, all around that same $500 point. I don't know anything more than that.
That's what I was looking to understand. Thanks.
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Old 05-02-2013, 07:41 PM
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So how many times could a vinyl record be played before the sound degraded? My guess is that audiophiles avoided playing their treasured records..to avoid "destroying the sound"!
We had cassettes. So you only had to play the record once every five years. I wasn't an "audiophile" but for a time I did have fairly expensive equipment. For all my work keeping my vinyl pristine, most of it went to the landfill because it was too much to move and too hard to sell. The rest was eventually sold off for less than a dollar per record.

Now I'm again stuck with thousands of CDs that nobody wants. That's not a problem yet as I haven't embraced the mp3/ipod culture either. I think I'll ride this wave out and wait for whatever is next on the audio technology front. things are moving more rapidly than the thirty years we got from the LP.
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Old 05-02-2013, 08:50 PM
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I was never a high-end audiophile, but records did noticeably degrade after only a few plays. Plus, every time you handled them there was always the risk of more dirt and scratches. Nothing sucked more than a treasured record developing a pop or skip that you couldn't clean.

I instead had a high-end cassette deck that I'd record my vinyl on, and then play the hell out of the cassettes, only pulling out the vinyl if I needed to record another tape.
My dad was a pre-CD audiophile, and recorded his LPs onto reel-to-reel tapes.
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Old 05-02-2013, 10:11 PM
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I loved my Phillips GA-212 manual turntable.

I think the main thing about a linear tracking tone arm was snob appeal. But if you had the proper equipment (not talking about very good speakers and amplifier and pre-amp, but audio lab test equipment) you could probably measure some difference in the sound. Not enough to hear, but enough to see on an oscilloscope.
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Old 05-02-2013, 10:49 PM
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We had cassettes. So you only had to play the record once every five years. I wasn't an "audiophile" but for a time I did have fairly expensive equipment.
When CDs went mainstream in the mid-eighties the popular format they actually replaced was the cassette. Cassettes had overtaken vinyl sales years earlier, due in part to the popularity of quality sounding portable players (i.e. Sony's Walkman), and quality car stereos, plus their general greater convenience. Interestingly, in the early 90s before CD burners were around and car CD players were still like cellphones, toys for the rich, I would buy everything on CD but still have to record them onto cassette for playing in my car. I would always use Type IV Metal blank cassettes because with CD source material it made a very noticeable difference in sound quality.
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Old 05-03-2013, 01:37 AM
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When CDs went mainstream in the mid-eighties the popular format they actually replaced was the cassette.
I didn't see it that way. I feel that CDs replaced vinyl.

In my experience during the 8-track era, very few people that I knew had recorders. Both vinyl and CD were not user-recordable. When CD recorders came out, they were expensive and required media that was much more expensive than cassettes. So cassettes had a unique niche for quite a long time. Once you could cheaply install a CD-RW in your home computer, it was all over. Shortly afterward, you couldn't find car audio that accepted cassettes. I used cassettes up through about 2000, partially because I had two very nice cassette decks and I was reluctant to write off the technology as obsolete.
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Old 05-03-2013, 02:31 AM
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... Once you could cheaply install a CD-RW in your home computer, it was all over. Shortly afterward, you couldn't find car audio that accepted cassettes. ...
I read a review a few years back complaining that the 2006 Ford Crown Victoria hadn't had an interior redesign in so long that the standard stereo system still contained a cassette deck.
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Old 07-26-2017, 01:34 AM
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Being an audiophile I remember those linear tracking turntables well. Regardless of their claims we knew they were less an 'audio' improvement than they were an 'interface' one. IOW you didn't have to manually pick up & move the tone arm anymore (audiophiles did NOT use clunky, mechanical 'record changers', we had direct-drive, revolution-speed fine-tuning, strobe light measured manual ones). The linear tracking arm was now electronically controlled with a groove-space reading track sensor, which was a big improvement.

What was a huge (and rather ridiculous) marketing gimmick were vertical turn tables. Yes, you mounted the record onto a latching, vertical platter and the tone arm hung down like a pendulum. They were also linear tracking but were even more expensive. I forget the supposed logic to them being 'better', put less stress on the vinyl maybe? Nothing more than $700 Monster Cable, pure bullshit...
One of the benefits, as explained to me, was that as a standard tone arm moved across in an arc, the wear on the stylus would change its shape such that it was presenting a bit of a new edge against the groove each time it began a new pass. With linear tracking, the wear was consistent and presented the same face against the groove, so that there was less wear on the vinyl over time. There were far fewer pops, and it rarely skipped, even on a less-than-loved album.
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Old 07-28-2017, 01:35 PM
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Well, how was the original cut? Linear? I never came close to reaching "audiophile" status but one thing I do recall is hanging the turntable (Phillips belt-drive) from the ceiling on strings. Never a skip from keg party type antics. I was the first person I knew that had a CD player (Adcom) and the sound difference was startling.
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Old 07-28-2017, 02:13 PM
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No cite, but I recall another advantage touted for the linear tracking turntables is that they tracked with the stylus always in the same orientation as the original cutting stylus, so I'm almost positive that all the commercial cutters were linear.

I had one briefly a very long time ago, back when I dealt with a high-end audio shop that would let customers take stuff home on a trial basis. I don't think it was Bang & Olufsen but I don't remember. I ended up taking it back in favor of a fairly ordinary Dual belt-drive conventional turntable, so I must have been unimpressed with the linear one, but I really don't remember any details.

Conventional turntables have the cartridge mount offset from the rest of the tone arm which helps to reduce the amount of angular offset as the arm moves. The fact that almost all professional turntables I was aware of at the time used conventional tone arms seems to corroborate the notion that the linear ones produced no significant audio benefits.

The most important thing was to have a turntable and a cartridge that allowed you to use a very low stylus pressure to minimize wear on the vinyl, although some amount of wear was inevitable with multiple playings. My trick for valued records was to make a tape recording at 7 1/2 ips when the record was still brand new, and mostly listen to the tape. With high quality tape 7 1/2 ips produced results that were virtually indistinguishable from the record. This is half the speed of the 15 ips used at the time for analog studio masters.
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Old 07-28-2017, 03:42 PM
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<snip> I do recall is hanging the turntable (Phillips belt-drive) from the ceiling on strings. Never a skip from keg party type antics<snip>.
Memories. So I'm not the only one. I ended up using wire. I also rigged up a light that would turn on when you opened the dust cover with a home made mercury switch.
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Old 07-28-2017, 10:17 PM
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A regular tonearm moves across the vinyl passively, by being dragged inside the groove. The force is almost entirely provided by one side of the groove, causing excess wear on that side. The. There is the tracking error mentioned above - as the tonearm moves from the outside to the inside of the record, the angle of the needle is constantly changing. Some people think this causes distortion and can cause easier skipping.

Linear tonearms moved under their own power using a worm gear, keeping the needle in the center of the groove and minimizing wear. This theoretically also improves sound quality by keeping the needle geometry consistent.

Now, whether any of this was actually true in practice is another question. There is so much snake oil and woo in the audiophile market that it's very hard to accept almost any subjective claim without it being backed by A/B tests, empirical evidence and plausible theory. And audiophiles HATE A/B tests, because generally they reveal that the $2,000 moon-rock needle the audiophile recently purchased was a complete waste of money.

My own gut feeling is that whatever effects arise from linear tonearms are completely swamped by other, much bigger sources of wear and distortion in LP record playback. Dust and dirt, needle wear, tracking errors from improper setup, needles that aren't balanced properly, etc. Analog systems suck.

Incidentally, the 'superiority' of LP's is a myth. There are two main reasons for believing it: the first is that Albums were often mixed differently - back in the day, an album was for home use or for FM stations. About the time CD's came along, radio stations discovered that people associated quality with loudness, and CD's often sounded quieter than records, because their higher dynamic range resulted in a lower average volume level.

In addition, CD's were being used in cars and while walking, which were noisier environments and the high dynamic range meant that at comfortable listening levels quiet passages would be lost in the background nise. iCD mastering therefore often uses dynamic compression to bring the average volume level up. That same compression makes the music sound less nuanced when listening critically.

The other problem back in the day was that MP3's became the standard way for people to get their music, and MP3's were often encoded at very low bitrates to keep the file sizss down - important when you only have 64MB for your music, and downloading was done at 56K bps or even slower. If this is the only way you've heard your music, a properly mastered LP record could easily sound better.

None of this is true today. You can get album mixes in digital form, there are many lossless music formats, and our processing and filtering technology is much better. I have some classic albums like Dark Side of the Moon remastered from vinyl masters in lossless digital form, and they are incredibly good. I defy anyone to do a blind A/B test against the original record and think that the record sounds better.
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Old 07-30-2017, 08:29 AM
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Linear tonearms moved under their own power using a worm gear, keeping the needle in the center of the groove and minimizing wear. This theoretically also improves sound quality by keeping the needle geometry consistent.
This is Yet Another Thing I Don't Get about audiophile stuff. Track spacing can vary quite a bit, plus there's the wide spaces between songs. The worm gear can't "know" the right rate of speed without there being some drag on one side or the other of the groove. If anything, the pressure is increased since the arm doesn't "float" as easily.

Anyway, I happen to have one of these I bought for a couple bucks years ago. (Panasonic SL-N25.) Even has line out connections. But it doesn't have a cartridge. It's in the "someday" stack.
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Old 07-30-2017, 09:11 AM
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There have been a range of linear tracking turntables, and even a parallelogram tonearm that provided a constant tracking angle. Turntables can't use a constant rate of motion as the spacing between tracks is not constant. (Many LPs were cut using a system that could look a track ahead and dynamically vary the cutting traverse rate, thus varying the track pitch to compensate for the loudness of the track to come.) The manner in which linear tracking turntables work has varied across just about every solution you can imagine. A rotating drum and idler wheel that acted to keep the arm at right angles to the drum, feedback systems with motor control to move the location, and linear air bearings that are so frictionless that the tonearm is simply moved by the stylus as needed. (But none have had a simple threaded drive at a constant rate.)

Conventional tonearms were typically set up to provide for a maximum error angle. The old way was to set the arm up so that it tracked at exactly tangential to the recorded track at the lead-in and lad out groves. However the better way determined two points part way across the surface, and the system was set so that these were the points where the angle was tangential, and this allowed the absolute error to be close to half that of the conventional way. I remember laboriously working through the measurements and calculations to get this right. In the end the error was really very small.

The dynamics of tracking an LP are weird. Conventional tonearms have an "anti-skate" force which is intended to counteract the force seen by the stylus as it moves the arm across the recording. But the actual forces involved are dynamic, and depend upon a whole range of issues, including stylus and cartridge arm geometry. True linear tracking system are supposed to not need an anti-skate force.

The question about matching the geometry of the cutter won replay is true, but misses a range of other problems. Perhaps the most important being that the cutter does not have the same geometry as the playback stylus anyway. That difference in geometry dominates any consideration of distortion mechanisms due to geometric differences. In the end the mechanical nuances of the tonearms dominate. Achieving a stable solid resonance free mounting for the cartridge, one without any bearing friction, and one that does not create difficult to manage subsonic resonances with the cartridge suspension is a non-trivial problem. Compromising any of that to compensate for a minor geometric error is generally not a useful tradeoff. Successful linear tracking systems needed to be at the silly extreme edge of every facet of engineering to be a win over a conventional tonearm. (Keeping mechanical noise out of the system is another difficult problem that compromised many designs.)
If you have a few thousand to spare, maybe. But anything short of that and you are well advised to stick to a conventional tonearm of the best quality you can manage.
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Old 07-30-2017, 10:53 AM
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I was an audiophile for many years. (My hearing loss in my 60s put it to bed, though.) I purchased two different linear-tracking turntables over the years and had to return both because I could easily hear the motor driving the tonearm. It's not difficult to understand that a motor connected even indirectly to the tonearm would pass along some vibrations. Most linear tracking turntables allow the arm to track inward a few grooves, then reposition the tonearm to recenter it on that part of the record. Granted, I had pretty good speakers and I expected a lot, but even my non-audiophile friends could hear the sounds during the silent portions of the record when I pointed them out.

The parallel arm tonearms were mechanically complex, but completely silent.

Overall, a good, standard tonearm that is properly adjusted is by far your best bet. But make sure it's made out of some super high-tech non-resonant material, like African walnut flown in by European swallows.
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Old 07-30-2017, 12:56 PM
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Originally Posted by Exapno Mapcase View Post
I paid $500, a fortune, for a used Bang & Olafson Beogram 4002 linear tracking turntable back in... Well, I forget. Late 70s, probably. I still have it, still use it. Bought a new cartridge in their Las Vegas store a few years ago.

I have no idea whether I can hear any difference it would make. But it's a wonderful piece of machinery. It's never had any problems in those 30+ years, and that's without any maintenance. (I don't know what you could do or would do, for that matter.) It's my favorite toy of all time. Every time I move the tonearm to a specific spot on the record I marvel anew.

Everybody should have one.
I had one of these, too. Very elegant.
I dumped it as soon as CDs came along. Records were always too much of a PITA for me.
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Old 07-31-2017, 09:13 AM
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Francis Vaughan: excellent post.
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