Best audiobook device
May 13, 2005 8:35 AM   Subscribe

What is the best portable device for playing audiobooks?

Critical features would include a feature rich pause and rewind ability. For example, pausing in the middle of a 10hr long file and having it pick back up at the right spot (this seems obvious but some players offset the pause and dont pick back up at the right spot, 5 seconds is a lot in a book). Automatic restore to last section played on power loss. Bookmarking as the file plays and restoring play at a boomark. Easy and precise management of forward and reverse. Wide choice of file formats. There may be other features I had not thought of, but these are ones I wish I had.
posted by stbalbach to Technology (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The cassette, number one. Books on CD are horrible.

The iPod, number two. You can only have bookmarking with AACs that you have specifically made bookmarkable yourself, or have purchased from the iTunes music store (which come from I use my iPod mostly for listening to audio books and recorded lectures nowadays.
posted by yesno at 8:46 AM on May 13, 2005

What is an AAC and how do you make it bookmarkable? I download from Audible, play the book on my PC and capture it to a MP3 file, so it's a plain vanilla MP3 file. Easier to deal with and archive that way. Basically just like any other music file, just a lot longer. Thats why I need good bookmarking features. Would iPod do that?
posted by stbalbach at 8:57 AM on May 13, 2005

My iPod remembers where I last was when I was listening to stuff bought from Audible. I don't do anything to make it do this. Actually, that might not be true. I think you just have to connect to iTunes between listens though I'm sure someone will clear that up soon.
posted by dobbs at 9:02 AM on May 13, 2005

An AAC file is a compressed audio file, very much like an mp3 but with some significant differences, three of which are important to this question:

1.) An AAC file sounds a lot better when reproducing voice at low datarates. Audiobooks, because they are so long are usually compressed a lot more than music. The mp3 compression scheme sounds very shooshy and artifacted at bitrates lower than 64kbs with voice, something that can be grating when listening to 20 hour long books. AAC files at these lower bitrates sound a lot better to my ears. Still not perfect, but a lot better.

2.) An AAC file can be 'made bookmarkable' by means of an Applescript (on macs, at least... PC iTunes users, can you do this too?) This is key as it makes the file 'remember' exactly where you left off last time you were listening. If you make it to 2 hours and 52 minutes in your book and then listen to other books and music when you got back to the first book it will pick up where you left off. Audiobooks bought through the iTunes Music Store are set up this way by default.

3.) AAC files cannot be played on any portable devices except the iPod (there are a couple of exceptions, but this is generally true.) If you want to use an iPod AAC is the natural choice, but if your pals have other kinds of devices you will not be able to easily share your files. AAC is an open standard, though, so I wouldn't worry too too much about not being able to access files in this format in the future.

I use my ipod to listen to books and lectures all the time. I've encoded a pile of The Teaching Company courses into bookmarked AAC and had great success. iTunes makes the whole process pretty easy... especially with the ability to merge CD tracks when you import them... that way I can make one big AAC file per cd instead of having 30+ little ones.

The one thing you want that is NOT in the ipod is bookmarking as the file plays. You cannot make a marker while you are listening and go back to it later. The player only remembers where you left off when you stop playing a file. As for your other feature requests: the ipod has a good way of finding specific spots even in very large files and it can play mp3, AAC, WAV, AIFF and Audible formats (not WMA.) Additionally it integrates with the iTunes software in a way that is exceptionally easy and pleasant to use. iTunes has a built in music store that has a ton of audiobook content that you can buy online as well.
posted by n9 at 9:12 AM on May 13, 2005

When you download from Audible, it is already in bookmarked format and you can just put it on your iPod as is. If you convert it to MP3 you are losing the bookmarks.

To make an MP3 file bookmarkable, on Windows use iTunes to convert it to AAC (right click on the file in iTunes and you will see the option), then change the file extension from .m4a to .m4b and re-add the new .m4b file into iTunes again and then resync to your ipod. The file is now bookmarkable.

See this forum post for more info.

There is also a "make bookmarkable" applescript if you have a Mac, but I have only read about it so can't vouch for it.
posted by matildaben at 9:13 AM on May 13, 2005

I can confirm that files bought from Audible support automatic bookmarking right from the store.
posted by koenie at 9:15 AM on May 13, 2005

While it's pretty old and not as hip as the iPod, the Rio Karma has a pretty damn good bookmarking system. You can pause the file, go into the menu and bookmark that spot. It's also good at resuming play at the spot where you left off when you turned off the player. I haven't tested it out on any super long audiobooks, though. Navigating through long files should be a breeze with the jog dial, though. Since it's an older player, and recently discontinued, you can probably find one for very cheap.
posted by zsazsa at 9:16 AM on May 13, 2005

My old Rio 500 has an even better bookmarking system, thanks to the inclusion of a dedicated 'bookmark' button. With the exception of supporting a wide variety of file formats, it also has all the other features you mention. Don't most mp3 players?

How much capacity do you want?
posted by box at 9:34 AM on May 13, 2005

stbalbach, I've been listening to audiobooks for nearly a year. (On CD, not on tape. Why is tape better than CD, yesno?) I joined in November, and think it's worth every penny.

When I joined, they gave me some $100 of an iPod deal. They probably have something similar going now. I ordered an iPod mini.

I'd always been opposed to the iPod mini ("for just $50 more I can have a lot more storage!"), but after having used one for six months, I understand the appeal. It's about the physical size, not about the capacity.

Audible and the iPod work together like a charm. I have an "audiobooks" playlist in iTunes. I keep checkmarks next to all books I haven't yet heard. I carry my iPod with me everywhere, and listen to books whenever I have large blocks of uninterrupted time.

The iPod remembers where you left off. I think that once or twice it's lost my place (maybe when the batter ran out? maybe when I listened to part of the same book from the computer instead?), but that's not a big deal. Now that I've learned how to "scrub" forward and back in an audiobook, I'm able to rewind and fast-forward to various parts, too.

There are probably other fine choices out there, but I'm pleased with the iPod mini, and don't hesitate to recommend it.

(sidetrack to n9: did you rip your Teaching Company lectures in iTunes default AAC format, or some other AAC format? I recently purchased several Teaching Company courses, but have been listening to them on CD. My local library doesn't have Teaching Company courses. Is there another way to purchase and/or trade them cheaply? They're great.)
posted by jdroth at 9:34 AM on May 13, 2005

jdroth --

I ripped the Teaching Company lectures to 48kbs mono AAC files with iTunes and then used the Make Bookmarkable script on them. I bought the lectures that I have (they have periodic sales that are very good) but a, ahem, friend has found them posted on usenet (through the excellent service.)
posted by n9 at 9:41 AM on May 13, 2005

Here's some more Rio 500 information. Salient details: It maxes out at 192 mb of memory. It supports Audible files. It runs off a single AA battery and connects via USB.
posted by box at 9:54 AM on May 13, 2005

Of interest, Audible's codec is not AAC. It's a codec made espicailly for encoding the human voice only. An equvilent would be the Xiph.Org Foundation's free Speex codec, but no portable players support that.
posted by easyasy3k at 10:02 AM on May 13, 2005

When you buy Audible content via the iTunes Store it is AAC, direct from audible it is one of their four different codecs.
posted by n9 at 10:30 AM on May 13, 2005

I like cassettes better than CDs for audiobooks because they have perfect "bookmarking." If the tracks are finely grained enough on a CD, that works too. Car stereos now tend to bookmark CDs, but you loose that info when you eject the CD or want to play it on a different player. CDs are of course better for copying.

People, you've got to stop with this hangup about mp3s. They're an obsolete format. Bad file size, bad sound quality. There is no software I know of that does bookmarking for mp3s. If you have something that is an AAC, keep it that way. Converting from one lossy format to another is a TERRIBLE idea. And if you're creating compressed audio files from scratch, mp3 should not be your first choice. AACs are MPEG4. MP3s are MPEG2. So it's not like you're going from an open format to something like Sony's ATRAC or Windows Media. Regardless, as far as I know, AAC + iTunes + the iPod is the only way to do automatic audiobook bookmarking. The Karma sounds like an okay choice if you want to do it by hand, but I can't imagine using anything other than iTunes at the moment, which is a deal-breaker. I could do without the iPod, but not without iTunes.

All you do on a PC to make an AAC bookmarkable is change the extension to M4B. On a Mac, you have to change the file type code to M4B. (Changing the extension only works on a Mac if the file has no tpye code.) The Applescript handles that nicely, though you can do it yourself with something like Quick Change (a useful tool to have anyway).
posted by yesno at 11:33 AM on May 13, 2005

Thanks all! Learned a lot of new things, sounds like AAC and iPod is the way to go. I'd probably go with the mini just because its smaller and lighter.

Since ther are TTC fans here, anyone know of a community forum? Not for tradeing, but to discuss reviews on courses, aspects of the course, etc..? Maybe thats another AskMe.
posted by stbalbach at 6:09 PM on May 13, 2005

I listen to a lot of audio books, and believe it or not, cassettes are much more robust than CDs. I've had one tape eaten in 4 years, but I would estimate that almost 25 % of the CDs I rent have skips.
posted by rfs at 8:36 PM on May 13, 2005

I have a Creative Zen 30gb, and you can easily bookmark audiobooks. When you want to bookmark the file, just pause, click (optional, but then you know exactly where you are bookmarking), go to "set bookmark," and you're done. Simple as that. It fits most of your criteria, so i would advise you to keep it in mind when looking for an audio device.
posted by apple scruff at 11:58 PM on May 13, 2005

No, mp3 still seems like by far the best format to me - the poorer compression ratio isn't relevant because storage is so cheap that there is no point in using mid or even high bitrates - just use maximum, always, and then enjoy that the mp3 files will play in any digital device, which is not the case with mpeg4 (or any other format).

If I was going to use something other than mp3, it would be a lossless compression format (ie about 50 to 60% compression of raw CD data filesizes). That lack of a lossless option is about the only weakness in mp3. The sound quality advantage of a lossless format over maxed-out mp3 is effectively nothing - it theoretically exists but I am unlikely to ever own a sufficient audio set-up for it to be audible, nor the taste for the right music, so it's of no concern to me, the big advantage is that you'll never ever have to re-rip the CD again when the next fad format comes along - you already have music files that double as digital archives.

I guess the day might eventually come when I have a use for a format that supports surround sound music, and mp3 (like Compact Disc) fails there. But until then, it seems the best format out there.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:05 AM on May 14, 2005

I am so glad I'm not an "audiophile". I am aware of the other formats, but constantly hear the derision and criticisms mp3's get, But when ripped @ 160k or 192k, I can barely tell the difference.
I've had parties at my house where winamp was the dj all night long and never got a complaint or a raised eyebrow at the fidelity or lack thereof of the tunes. In fact I was asked more than once if I had one them there big old cd jukeboxes in the study where the pc was. When in actuality I just had a playlist going unattended.
Furthermore I even Dj'ed one night at a local dive with my laptop and 200gb hard drive of mp3's and no one noticed a thing. The theme of night was stump the dj and took all sorts of varied requests from the patrons and came through with flying colors. It wasn't all indie or metal, I played a lot of dynamically varied genres. (ie trip hop, elliot smith, old soul, hip hop, ambient etc.)
I was wary because on the bigger louder soundsystem I thought the flaws of the lesser quality would shine through. But when I deferred to anyone who might have better or more acute hearing they noticed nothing as well. I can see where the pickiness might come in with certain classical, orchestral or jazz music, but with the white stripes, flaming lips or hendrix it might not be that important.
I don't know what my point is and didn't want to threadjack but GO MP3! .. best thing since sliced bread!
posted by stavx at 2:10 PM on October 25, 2005

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