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Audio books with a twist - instead of an old fashioned pile of cassettes or CDs, Audible offer MP3 style digital audio books and other programming.

You'll pay less for an Audible book than a paper book, or an audio cassette.  The service is convenient, but not without some troubling flaws.

 
 
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Audible Digital Talking Books review

Listen to books, magazines, and more on your computer or portable MP3 player
 

You'll be given a free MP3 player if signing up for a one year audio book subscription with Audible.

You can choose from a wide variety of books, magazines, newspapers and radio shows, and play the audio on a range of different MP3 players or your personal computer.

 

 

The 'talking book' - a recording of someone reading a book - has been available to the general public for many years, either recorded onto cassette tapes or CDs.

This technology has evolved into a purely digital format, similar to MP3.  In theory, it promises a great deal more convenience and lower cost.  In practice, restrictive copy protection sacrifices much of the convenience you have with cassettes/CDs, and the theoretical cost savings that a totally electronic format requiring neither dead trees, plastic, nor any freight are not as great as one would hope for.

But if you have spare time - perhaps while driving, or exercising, or traveling, then you might find listening to talking books, whether for amusement, education, or any other purpose to be a good use of that time.  Audible's special 99c trial offer is a great way to try the service and decide for yourself if it is of ongoing interest for you and your lifestyle.


About Audible

Audible was founded seven years ago - a lifetime in terms of internet and digital technology evolution.  Back then it was definitely ahead of its time, but now it is perhaps the right product in the right place.

Audible has struggled to build a viable customer base and attain the critical mass it needs, but seems close now to making that necessary breakthrough.  It does not disclose current customer numbers, other than to say that in total since 1997, 384,000 people have tried their service.  We estimate their current customer numbers are about 150,000, with customers from over 120 different countries.

Audible partnered with Amazon in 2000 so all digital audio books for sale through Amazon are sourced through Audible, and in October 2003 joined the Apple iPod bandwagon and titles can now be purchased through the iTunes website too.

Overview of How it Works

You visit the Audible website and either buy individual books and magazines or else buy an annual subscription that makes more content available at a lower price.

You download the items you purchase to your computer and then either play them on your computer or on a limited number of MP3 players.

You need to install special software on your computer and special drivers onto the MP3 player for the audio to play.  Copy protection prevents you from sharing files with others.

Audible Book vs Paper Book

In general

An audio book obviously has no illustrations or pictures, and - less obviously - has almost no chapters or pagination, either.

The software will automatically restart a book at the point where you stopped reading, but has only rudimentary chapterization and nothing like the convenient tracks and extensive information about each track that you'd find with MP3s.  This is a disappointing and surely unnecessary omission - if track information can easily be included with MP3 files, why can't it also be included with the audio book files?

If you're a fast reader, you might be frustrated at the slower speed of the spoken word.

On the other hand, there are advantages of an audio book as well.  You can listen to the book in places where you couldn't conveniently read - for example, when trying to sleep on an overnight flight, or while driving, or perhaps when at the gym.

Audio books usually have one or sometimes two people doing the reading.

Some people find the best way to think of audio books is not as an 'either/or' issue, but instead, considering the audio books as an extension of their reading opportunities.  If you're feeling like a good read in the evening, you'll probably still curl up on the couch with a nice print book.  But if you'd like to read at times and in places where you couldn't otherwise read, then an audio book gives you an added opportunity.

Audio books are also much smaller than print books.  For example, the Creative Muvo player measures only 1.5" x 3" x 0.5" and weighs little more than an ounce, but can hold three or four hardback books.  This makes it useful if you're traveling and trying to keep your weight down.

Sharing/Copying/Buying and Selling

If you're like me, many of the books you lend to friends get forgotten about and never returned.  And so, perhaps it is a good thing there is no easy way to share or give an Audible audio file to a friend!

Audible files are copy protected, and to play them you need special software for your computer and special drivers for your MP3 player (which is why not all MP3 players can handle the files).  They are not plain generic MP3 files.

If desperate to share, you could a regular CD containing the information from an Audible file and give that to a friend.  Of course, if you wanted to give them a 12 hour book, you'd end up having to burn about 10 CDs in the process.  This isn't nearly as convenient as just passing your book over to them (and the Audible program limits you to making 1.5 CD copies of each book).

If you wanted to sell your used Audible files, you would be out of luck.  You are buying a single exclusive non-transferable license to listen to the file yourself, but, unlike a regular book, can't sell it on to anyone else after you've finished with it.

The bottom line is that an Audible book costs more than a paperback edition of the same title, but you can't lend it to friends, and neither can you sell it (or buy it second hand) when you've finished it.

Time to read

Audible books range in length, just like regular books, of course.  Many titles are also available in an abridged format, which seems to be about half the length (or even less) of the full unabridged format.

Audible advise that fiction books seem to generally be more popular in an unabridged format, but non-fiction books (particularly self-help and general business advice) books are often more popular in their abridged format.

Full length books seem to commonly range from about 9 - 15 hours.  But there are notable exceptions - for example, former President Clinton's autobiography is a staggering 52 hours long.  But what to make of the fact that the abridged version collapses to a a mere 6 hours?

Some titles are available both in unabridged and abridged versions, and others are only available in one format but not the other.  An abridged version ranges from only slightly shorter than the original book to often less than half the length, and in the case above, barely 10% of the original book.

Radio programs are typically one hour.

Compared to a fiction book

If you plan to simply casually read a book from cover to cover, starting on page 1 and going through to the end, then the Audible experience is similar to just reading the book.

Compared to a non-fiction book

If you're wanting to simply casually read through a non-fiction book - perhaps a biography - then you can listen to the audio book as conveniently as reading the book.

But if you're wanting to be able to refer to the book - to be able to look things up in the index, or read through the contents and go to exactly the chapter you want, and of course, if you want/need to view illustrations as part of understanding the book's subject, then an audio book becomes inconvenient and/or useless.  It wouldn't be very useful as a travel guide.  I'm not sure how it would handle footnotes either.

Comparison with Cassettes and CDs

All three media offer a very similar audio experience.

The biggest problem with cassettes is the inconvenience of having a pile of cassettes for each book.  This makes each book less portable and convenient, and the sheer volume of cassettes can add to the price as well.

CDs are less bulky, but a digital book is plainly the least bulky of all.

Cassettes are perhaps the worst of the three options, due to their size and the inconvenience they present, plus their greater fragility.  CDs are more robust, and if well programmed with track information, it is easier to find your way around a pile of CDs than through cassettes.

To take an extreme example, the 52 hour Bill Clinton book takes 41 CDs or 34 cassettes, and sells for about $150!

CDs usually have the highest sound quality, with cassettes having reasonably good sound and Audible books a sound quality that you can select, ranging from worse than cassette to as good as cassette but not as good as CD.

Range of Product Offered

There's a lot less material for sale at Audible's website than at your local bookstore.  They have approximately 5250 books online, compared to a good bookstore that will carry more than ten times this number of books, and Amazon with 2.5 million books available.

The range of titles they have is sensibly tilted towards subjects that are better suited for talking books - you won't see any 'coffee table books' that rely heavily on illustrations, for example, and neither will you find any in-depth reference works.

Audible also offer a mix of other programming - magazines, radio shows, newspapers, and even free material.

In total this makes for 22,000 programs of all types (but who really cares about last month's magazines), totaling 52,000 hours of material.

New titles are being released all the time, so if you do sign up for a subscription, you don't have to worry about running out of things you want to read.

How Many Megabytes is an Audible Book

Audible sound files are available in four different levels of sound compression and quality :
 

Audible Rating

MB per Hour

Download time per hour of material (56k/broadband)

Quality

1 - Fair
Telephone Like

2 MB

7/1 minutes

Bad

2 - Good
AM radio

4

12/1

Fair

3 - Good
FM radio

7

22/2

Good

4 - Excellent
MP3

14

44/5

V Good

 

Obviously, the more compressed a book, the less space it requires, and the faster the download.

Space is not really a problem on the huge hard-drives available today, but it is a massive constraint on some of the smaller portable playing devices (such as the Creative Nomad offered by Audible).  While the Apple iPod has a 20GB hard drive, the Nomad has only 128 MB, and other similar devices generally have between 64MB and 256MB.  So if you want to take your books with you, there is strong reason to get the most compressed file size possible.

Unfortunately, you don't get something for nothing, and the compromise you must accept is that the smaller the file size, the poorer the sound quality.  The smallest file size, with the greatest compression, gives a low sound quality that probably would become tiring to listen to for an extended period.

Note also that Audible's level 1 compression is incompatible with portable MP3 players, it only works on computers and Pocket PC devices.

Indeed, not all portable devices support all three other compression levels, either.  Most will support levels 2 and 3, and a few will also support level 4.

You should normally choose level 2 or 3 for your downloads.  You can play samples of all four formats from this page on the Audible site to choose which sound level you're comfortable with.

The 32 kb/sec rate of Audible's best audio quality is still very much lower than the 192kb/sec I recommend for making music MP3s.  But voice recording needs very much less bandwidth than music recording, so the 32 kb/sec is more than adequate for most people.

How Many Books Can You Fit on an MP3 Player

If we say an average book is 10 hours, then you are looking at either 40MB or 70MB (for level 2 or 3 compression) per book.

The Creative Muvo player offered for free with new one year signups holds 128MB of audio.  This means you could fit three regular books in lower quality audio, or one regular and one short book in higher quality audio onto the player.

Expressed another way, 128MB can hold between 17 and 34 hours of audio.

If you choose to load books onto a higher capacity 20GB iPod, then you could get a massive 2,650 - 5,300 hours of audio on the unit - more than enough for your next long flight somewhere!  Even if you set aside 'only' 1 GB for audio books and keep the rest for music, that still gives you 125 - 250 hours for books and magazines.

Audible Subscription Options

You can choose to simply buy books and magazines, one by one, as you wish, or you can sign up for a one year commitment and then have access to discounted products.

Perhaps the best buy for most people is the one year 'Basic Listener' package.  This costs $14.95/month and gives you, each month, your choice of any one book plus also a subscription to any one magazine, newspaper or radio program.  You can of course buy more books and periodicals if you choose to.

A nice thing about the annual packages is that you can pre-order books (a bit like pre-ordering videos with Netflix) so if you forget to order something one month, you get the next item on your list and your subscription fee isn't wasted for that month.

Free Player Offer

Audible currently have a special promotion - if you sign up for a year of service, they'll give you a free Creative Nomad MuVo MP3 player.  This is a nifty little unit, and is little bigger than a Flash drive - indeed, you plug it into your computer's USB port and it behaves just like a Flash drive when copying files between the player and the computer.

The player uses one AAA battery and gets about 12 hours of life from each battery.  It is easy to operate and has 128MB of storage capacity.

Audible value the player at $100, which means your one year subscription ends up costing you a net of only $80 after allowing for the free player.  You can get the players online for as little as $55, but even if considering this lower price point, it means you're paying just $10/month for their service.

Buying Books One at a Time

If you don't want to sign up for a year's commitment, you can also buy books individually.  At present (but expiring at the end of Friday 24 September) Audible has a special offer - any and every title on their site is available for only $9.95 each.

If you're wondering if the Audible concept would suit your lifestyle, this is a great way to inexpensively sample their products.

Pricing Comparison

You'd expect a digital version of a book to be substantially cheaper than a regular print version, and also cheaper than the same audio version on tape or CD.  There is no variable product cost (other than royalties) associated with selling each extra copy - the seller doesn't need to make books from paper, or to make CDs or tapes from their raw materials, and neither is it necessary to pay any freight costs (other than a negligibly small cost for internet bandwidth used - some fraction of a cent).

The good news - digital audio books are usually cheaper than the hard cover print version of the same title.  But - the bad news - amazingly, they are typically more expensive than a paperback version of the same book.  This is hard to understand and harder to justify.

At present Audible have a temporary promotion so that all their titles are priced at $9.95, but when that promotion is not underway, titles can be priced comparable to or slightly below the hardcover price.  The $9.95 promotion happens occasionally but not all the time.

On the other hand, while prices are high compared to the print book itself, prices are reasonable compared to audio cassettes and CDs.

Some titles are priced below $10, while some are priced as high as $120 (when the $9.95 promotion is not running).  And there is some free content as well, although the free content tends not to be regular books but instead things like recordings from the two party conventions, Supreme Court oral arguments, and other such 'public domain' material.

For an example of the different pricing levels, here is a present best-seller, The Da Vinci Code, which is priced on Amazon as follows :

 

Format

Full Retail

Amazon

Hardback

$26.95

$26.95

Paperback

Not yet released but will be ~ $8

Audio cassette unabridged

$39.95

$27.17

Audio cassette abridged

$25.95

$18.16

Audio CD unabridged

$44.95

$30.57

Audio CD abridged

$29.95

$20.37

eBook

$9.95

$9.95

Audible MP3 unabridged

$29.95

$9.95 (temporary special price)

 

Using Audible's Service

It is probably fair to say that the concept of digital audio books is great in theory but flawed in real life, particularly due to issues of cost, convenience and copy protection.

Similarly, Audible - or that part of it we see through its website - is a great idea but also with some limitations when one actually tries to use the service.

I found the website difficult to understand and work through, and the help files as puzzling as the site they were trying to explain.  The need to load extra software onto my computer, and learn the new interface to manage this software, was another added complication that interfered with the simple concept of 'choose a title, download it, play it'.

Customer support is limited to 9am - 9pm Eastern time and 10am - 4pm on Saturday.  This is not very convenient if you're on the west coast or an international customer, and I did have four problems with the website; three outside support hours and one during support hours.  My two calls to their Customer Support involved 5 and 22 minute waits on hold, while being forced to listen to an audio book with a story about pregnant talking spiders.  Both problems were quickly solved, but to have four program problems (not my misunderstanding, but software issues) during my trialing the service is unsettling.

Information on their magazine and radio shows was frustratingly incomplete - I'd like to know how long each show is, and what time it is released each day, so I can plan for if I use it eg on the morning commute to work or the evening commute home.  (I'm told this information is in the process of being added.)

Playing the books themselves was a mixed experience.  You'll either like or dislike the concept of having books read to you, and probably nothing I say will change your mind.

It was good that the book playing program remembers where you are up to, so if you stop playing a book, then restart again later, it remembers where you were and restarts from that place.  But it was not so good that it was hard to find any specific section in a non-fiction or reference type book - the audio book format seems best suited for things you read through from start to finish, not for things you want to search through to find specific parts.

Summary

Digital audio books take up less space than cassette or CD based similar products, but have copy protection limitations that cassettes and CDs (and ordinary printed books) do not.

An audio book, in general, is a great way to 'read' (ie listen to) a book at times when you couldn't otherwise be reading a book, such as when driving or exercising.  Audio books are well suited for fiction and 'self help' material that you'll probably read once and then discard.  They are not well suited for reference, pictorial or complex books.

Audible is the industry leader in providing this type of product.  If the concept of digital audio books is of interest, it would certainly behoove you to try their product out.  They're have a special offer to make it easy for you to sample their products and service - download any two of their audiobooks for only 99 cents!  This is a great opportunity to try for yourself this new way of listening to books.

If you find yourself with spare time - perhaps while driving or exercising or traveling - when you could take advantage of listening to books either for entertainment, interest, keeping up with current events, education or self-improvement, then this might prove to be a valuable and convenient service, and certainly, the 99c offer, giving you two books, is a low risk way to try it for yourself.

 

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Originally published 24 Sep 2004, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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