Media comes in various shapes and forms. So far I’ve mostly looked at music services, but as a heavy audio books user myself I couldn’t ignore taking a look at some audio books providers as well. The obvious starting point is the service I myself have used for years; Audible.
Audible is one of few media services that is global or close to. That doesn’t mean you will have the same selection in every country as there are licensing issues with Audible as with anything else, but it shouldn’t be as noticeable as with other services that are more or less US only. You also have Audible UK and France besides Audible US, but you can still use the US store even if you don’t live there. To play back Audible content on a portable device you need a device that supports Audible. Their Device Center has a list of all devices and platforms that will work. The most noticeable MP3 players supported include: Cowon D2(+)/S9/i9, all newer Creative players, all Zunes, all newer Philips players and all newer SanDisk players. On top of that you can get software for Symbian S60, Windows Mobile and Java compatible cell phones, but nothing for Maemo 5, Android or WebOS- yet. Audible uses 5 different formats; 1, 2, 3, 4 and E (enhanced) and what format each device supports varies and is listed in the device center
Downloading the files is done through Audible Download Manager, which will download the files and then transfer them into the software you use to sync the files. Downloads should start automatically after checkout as long as the software is installed. You can also re-download the books as many times as you want, so no need to worry about failed downloads or losing the files. Once you’ve been a member for a few years your Audible collection will most likely be rather big as well so it’s nice to be able to store them online for future use.
As for syncing software, there are several ways of transferring content. On cellphones and the likes, you might be able to download directly- depending on the device you have. On the computer side you can either use the Audible Manager or Audible compatible software such as J. River Media Center, Windows Media Player or iTunes. Audible books have DRM, and you can only authorize 4 computers and 3 portable devices at any given time. This shouldn’t be an issue since removing authorization on a device takes roughly 2 seconds and then you can authorize another device instead. The Audible Manager will handle this as well as playing the books on a computer and transferring to a portable device from within the Audible Manager. The Audible Manager isn’t exactly the best software out there, but luckily you won’t be using it much (you don’t have to, anyways, even if you want to listen on your computer).
Audible uses it’s own file format called Audible Audio with a .aa file extension. These have some special features built in, such as chapters- which means that you can skip chapters within a single file instead of having one file for each chapter. You can burn CDs from the files, but not convert them. There are technically 5 different quality levels, but only 4 are in use; 2, 3, 4 and E. Audible doesn’t seem to have heard of bitrates, or believe their customers are idiots like Rhapsody does, so they don’t list the bitrates of the files- only the estimated size per hour. Format 2 is 3.7MB, format 3 is 7.2MB, format 4 is 14.4MB and format E (enhanced) is 28.8MB. The formats are similar in sound quality to AM radio, FM radio, MP3 and CD respectively- according to Audible. With one hour being 3600 seconds and 1kB being 1kb (kilobit vs kilobyte), that means the formats have bitrates of about 8kbps, 16kbps, 32kbps and 64kbps. Audible files are mono, not stereo, so this is comparable to double the bitrate in stereo. This means that format 4 is comparable to 64kbps stereo and the enhanced format 128kbps stereo, which should be more than enough for spoken words. Audiobooks are normally at least 10 hours, so with the enhanced format that is a sizable 288MB download and for bigger books we’re talking over 1GB. I personally tend to use format 4 as it is in my opinion good enough. Not all devices support the enhanced format either, mostly new devices does- such as the Cowon S9 and Sansa Clip+.
Audible operates with both plans and real prices. The AudibleListener Gold Monthly plan is $14.95 and gives you 1 credit per month, the AudibleListener Platinum Monthly plan is $22.95 and gives you 2 credits per month, and the annual version of those plans are $149.50 and $229.50 with 12/14 credits all at once, respectively. The monthly plans allow for rollover of 6/12 credits respectively. Most books cost 1 credit, but some cost more if they are really long. You can also buy books, which can cost anywhere from a few bucks to $40+ depending on the length. As a Gold or Platinum member you get 30% off books bought at normal prices. Normally I find the books I like to be about $18 after the 30% off, but this of course varies depending on the book as I said. Unfortunately, short books don’t necessarily cost the least, which is an issue if you go by price per hour.
Audible plans is something that continually annoys me as a platinum members as there isn’t anything there for people who listen to more than 2 books per month. Audible when confronted with this points to the annual plans, but there’s a big differe
nt between paying a monthly fee and lashing out several hundred dollars at once. A much better system would be to have 3 credits for $30, 4 credits for $36, and 5 credits for $40 per month. By forcing you to either pay full price or buy a heap of credits at once, Audible is punishing its most loyal customers by not giving them a plan that works well for them. Another issue is the fact that a platinum member pays $11.47 per credit, whereas buying 12 credits at once actually increases the price to $12.46. Normally, buying in bulk means lower prices, but to get that you have to get 24 credits at once. 12 credits should be no more than $120, and 24 should be no more than $200. I listen to a lot of audiobooks from Audible, but when my two credits run out and I want a book that’s $18 I have the choice to wait for the credits to renew, pay $150 for 12 credits and pay more per credit than usual, or pay $230 and be left with 23 credits more than I wanted in the first place. Another “issue” I’ve taken offense to is how they have an unnatural amount of sign-up offers for new members, but never really does anything for existing members. Once your trial period is up you pay full price for the service and can cancel any time, and even open a new account using the same credit card but a different email, so it would be in the company’s best interest to try to look like the care about loyal customers that doesn’t try to scam them for free credits. Cell phone companies do it, so I don’t see why media subscription companies like Audible, Rhapsody etc doesn’t. Why the world’s biggest audio book store only seem to cater to casual users is frankly beyond me.
Audible is completely web browser based for browsing titles, so no software store is available. The main page gives you various banners and suggestions for new books, book sales and so on. There are also recommendations for books based on the ones you already have and the recommendations are fairly good, at least if you’re a person that sticks to more or less the same kind of books (science fiction in my case).
The left sidebar is the main method for narrowing down the 60000 titles on Audible to what you actually want. You can browse by genre, best sellers, new releases and so on and also access the podcasts and magazines/newspapers that Audible offers. There aren’t that many podcasts on Audible and some of them cost money, but the magazine/newspaper feature is pretty decent- especially for the visually impaired who can’t get news directly from the papers.
Browsing by genre gives you a new main page with more recommendations, new releases and so on. You can also browse sub-genres, some of which are somewhat random (like for science fiction: classic, contemporary, Star Trek, Star Wars). You can browse most popular, customer favorites and new releases and wade through very long lists to find books you’re after.
When you do find a book you have the option to preview it, which is crucial with Audible. As I’ve a href=”http://www.anythingbutipod.com/archives/2009/05/bad-audio-book-narrators-ruining-the-audio-book-experience.php”>written about before, not all narrators on Audible are what you would call good at their job. Some are just inexperienced and using the wrong intonation, pausing in the wrong moments etc while some aren’t even audo book professionals- just actors hired to give books some PR. One example of the latter is James Marsters reading The Dresden Files, who keeps sighing and breathing into the microphone constantly. I won’t list more examples of this now as I listed plenty in the dedicated article about it on the link above.
You can also view comments, summaries and so on on the audio book page, see what formats it’s available in, see similar books, add to wishlist and so on. Audible is owned by Amazon, but this integration isn’t really visible as there aren’t any links to the paper version or any Amazon comments or anything like that- the latter would be helpful with books that don’t have comments covering the audio version, which is often the case.
I do want to point out a few annoyances with the Audible browsing experience which continue to annoy me. First off, the search engine on the site isn’t able to index the books fast enough, so if you try to search for a book on release day it won’t show up in any kind of search and you have to manually browse to the correct subgenre and find it under “new releases”. I’ve relayed this bug to Audible but they stopped responding after I made clear it wasn’t an issue with just one book. Another issue is with book series. Audible doesn’t offer anything like a series page that has all the books in a series, and very few series are actually numbered or even mentioned being part of a series. To add to the confusion they tend to release books in different orders and not always all of them, so you might very well find yourself buying a book and then realizing it’s part of a series, not the first one in the series, and that the other books aren’t even available. This has annoyed me so many times as I’ve Googled my way to the author home pages to find a list of the books as they were intended to be read and then manually searched the books to find the first one. Music services list tracks by album, audio book services should list books by series. In the very least have them numbered so mistakes wouldn’t happen as easily. Again an issue I’ve contacted Audible about without any response whatsoever- at times I wonder if they even have a customer support department or if everyone at Audible are busy trying to grab new customers.
Since I’ve been using Audible and audio books for so long I thought I’d throw in a few recommendations for audio book setups. I have covered this before as well, but this time it’s my personal recommendations. The Sansa Clip+ is my personal audio book player of choice because it handles the two highest quality formats, is cheap, small and very portable and is a great overall player. The price makes it perfect for a dedicated audio book player so that I don’t have to mix music and audio books (even if that’s perfectly possible) and that also means it’s a cheap player to give as a gift to someone- maybe with a gift coupon for Audible on the side. As for headphones, there are many cheap headphones out there that will do just fine for audio books. My personal preferences for audio books include the Creative EP630 IEMs, Sennheiser PX100 headphones and the Koss KSC75 clip-on headphones. The Clip+ 4GB and the KSC75 would give you an audio book starter pack for $55, which is a very nice deal. Audible also has an offer running these days where you can sign up for 3 months of the Gold membership at full price and get a “free” Philips GoGear Spark, an awesome little player that I reviewed not long ago. Keep in mind that the price of a 2GB clip+ is about
$35-40 and signing up for a Audible Platinum account gives you 2 free audio books, while this offer will cost you a total of $55 and give you 3 books, so it’s not really that cheap.
As a long-time heavy Audible user it’s no surprise I like the service, but it definitely has a few downsides. Bad customer service, bad service plans for heavy users and some search engine and listing annoyances aside, Audible also has a monopoly on many audiobooks due to producing them themselves through their Audible Fronties, Audible IndieFirst and other “ventures” they have going for recording different kinds of books. This means that a lot of books are Audible-only, so you don’t have much choice in a lot of cases. Still, it’s a very nice service and the prices are decent compared to buying audio books on CD. The great selection, ease of use and the extensive (to some degree) list of supported devices makes it a great choice for audio books- the best choice, in my opinion, especially if you don’t have access to Overdrive.