Digital Audio Books Are a Great Way to Experience Books, News

I don't commute to work in the typical sense (I work at home), but if I did, I'd pass the hours in the car, bus, or train listening to audio books. Audio books have expanded dramatically beyond the old cassette- and CD-based delivery systems and are now available online in electronic format. So, in preparation for a recent business trip, I decided to join Audible.com, a popular online audio book seller, and see whether new technology has improved the audio book experience.

My first audio book experience in 1990 involved a collection of Stephen King short stories with a unique 3-D sound effect that greatly enhanced the audio. I was in the hospital at the time recovering from basketball-related knee surgery and received the audiocassettes as a get-well gift. I don't know whether listening to Stephen King in such a situation was a great idea, but my knee recovered, and I still recall being impressed with the sound quality.

This year, a deal between Apple Computer and Audible.com calls for the service to expand its products' compatibility to iTunes 3 and Apple's excellent portable audio player, the iPod (Audible.com works with the PC, of course, and other portable devices). Audible.com offers several ways to purchase audio content, including a retail-only option (which I used) that doesn't require you to join a subscription service. Under this plan, you simply pay as you go; most audio books cost $10 to $20 each. However, if you think that you'll listen to audio books more often, the company also offers two subscription plans:

- BasicListener. For $14.95 a month, you receive one audio book of your choice each month plus one daily, weekly, or monthly subscription to digest versions of newspapers such as "The Wall Street Journal" and "The New York Times," public radio recordings, newsletters, magazines, and other audible selections.

  • PremiumListener. For $19.95 a month, you receive two audio books a month.

Audible.com lists about 4500 audio books and more than 14,000 other audio programs, which can range in length from just a few minutes to several hours. Audio books come abridged or unabridged (sometimes the same title has both choices); the unabridged versions generally cost more and, obviously, take more time to hear in their entirety. For example, the unabridged version of the "The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time," a current best-seller by Douglas Adams, takes about 8 hours to listen to.

Audible.com's selections are generally available in several sound-quality formats (I always go for the highest quality because I use a hard disk based iPod), and you can generally burn them to CDs if you want to use car or portable CD players. The original authors occasionally read the book selections, or professional speakers read them. Long-time Adams collaborator Simon Jones, who played the Arthur Dent character in the original radio broadcast of Adams's "The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy"; Stephen Fry, a favorite of mine from the excellent UK TV series "Blackadder"; and other famous actors and speakers read the Adams title mentioned above. I recommend checking out a book's online audio sample before buying it, however. Not all the readers are of this quality.

To test the service, I downloaded a free, short, original interview with Robin Williams and Pixar animation genius John Lasseter; Ken Auletta's "World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies" (an abridged insider's look at the corporate battles between Microsoft and Netscape, read by Robert O'Keefe); and Stephen King's "LT's Theory of Pets," a live recording of the author reading this entertaining short story to a London audience.

Audible.com selections are available for immediate download when you purchase them, and they remain available to you for download forever afterward (assuming the service doesn't disappear, I suppose). This option is a huge advantage over traditional audio books, because you can purchase a book online just minutes before you leave for the airport or work, download it to your computer, and have it available at any time. And, of course, you don't have to worry about ruining the original recording because you can download your purchases again and again. I downloaded the three selections into iTunes 3 under Mac OS X and experimented with them briefly, then copied them to my iPod and headed off to my Seattle business trip.

One benefit of computer-based or portable digital-audio devices is that the device or software automatically saves a bookmark when you stop listening, which isn't the case when you burn the selection to CD (or multiple CDs, in some cases). But many CD players are smart enough to remember where you stopped and will start at that point when you return. Falling asleep was a problem I ran into twice: Something about Robert O'Keefe's droning voice caused me to nod off while listening to "World War 3.0" (which is otherwise excellent, incidentally). So I had to manually rewind and find my spot, which can be a problem both with cassette and CD playback, of course.

I'm intrigued about but didn't test Audible.com's selection of news subscriptions. I think it'd be nice to listen to "The New York Times," say, on the way to work each day. A 1-month subscription to "The New York Times" or "The Wall Street Journal" is $12.95, and you can get those subscriptions as part of the BasicListener package. "The New York Times" is available daily for about $2, if you need that service only occasionally. Audible.com has other daily selections that cover a wide range of topics.

Overall, I'm impressed with the Audible.com service and audio books in general and would take greater advantage of them if I were a commuter. As it stands, I'll probably grab an audio book for each of my future business trips because I found the experience worthwhile. But I use an iPod and a portable computer. If you have a car-based or portable CD player, you might be better served with CD-based audio books, which seem to be more plentiful, available in a variety of locations, and potentially less expensive. However, the Audible.com services are probably cost-effective for frequent listeners, so you might need to make a decision based on those factors. Whichever option you choose, I highly recommend audio books, especially for people on the go.

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