The NAB Blog

So you want to download your audiobooks?

By Nicolas Soames

19 March 2007

Everyone is talking about downloading music and audiobooks at the moment. Travel on the train or the London Underground and you see more and more people with tiny headphones in their ears (particularly the distinctive white buds of the iPod) or massive ear-muff sized super-sound machines clamped to the head, or anything in between.

Most of the content they are listening to comes from CDs ripped into their computers. But an increasing amount comes from download providers… with iTunes, of course, leading the market with 70% of music downloads.

With audiobooks, Audible – in its various guises (.com./ – is the market leader by far. It is the longest established (a survivor, like Amazon, from the dot-com boom) and it has ensured that it works with iTunes and on iPods. In fact, it is the sole audiobook provider for iTunes, which takes selections from the audible database.

But an increasing number of DSPs (download service providers) are appearing, becoming shop fronts for downloads in the same way that high street music shops sell CDs. It should be easy. You go to the download shop that you like in the same way that you go to a book shop – chain or independent – of your choice. You find what you want, you click, download, load onto your player, and hey presto, you are equipped to brave the commuting for another week!

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. There are file format problems, sound quality issues, protection issues and download issues to combat. And then there is the added hurdle of getting those files to play in the car!

I am glad to say that with the Naxos AudioBooks Download Shop, it is that easy. (Only car transfer needs a little extra distance to travel – with either a cable, a transmitter connection to the radio, or burned to MP3 CDs). That is because we have straightforward MP3 files that are ‘unprotected’ and will download onto all computers and play on all players.

Generally, the complications of file formats and file protection are hindering the growth of downloads in a frustrating way… though there are recent signs that a clearing of the decks is coming.

Here is a quick resumé of downloads:

Apple introduced iTunes using AAC files protected with the FairPlay DRM system (DRM – digital rights management) because this was demanded by the record companies, who had been bruised by unrestricted file sharing by the Internet community.

Audible developed its own file format (a modified form of MP3) with its own DRM system, because, like iTunes and the record companies, it was under constraint by the big publishing companies to protect their audiobook files. This format also works with all computers and, once software has been loaded on to players, it will work on the iPod and its principal rivals.

Microsoft: WMA
Meanwhile, Microsoft was trying to make its own playing format, WMA, dominant – with little success. It was more cumbersome and crucially it didn’t have the player base: its files couldn’t be played on iPods, which had 70% of the download market. BUT the files were protected, so music and audiobook companies were happy to provide content for it.

There was a side issue of quality. iTunes’ music files are encoded at 128kbps, which is reckoned to be better than FM radio but not as good as CDs. However, it was deemed adequate for most music – especially as the files would be played on computers (with generally very average speakers) or portable players with headphones. Classical music fans and hi-fi enthusiasts might have demurred, but convenience was paramount.
Audible files have been much smaller – encoded at 8 kbps, 16kbps or 32 kbps – and the sound has been much lower quality. This was because a) it was deemed that the spoken word doesn’t need such high quality, and b) the file size for unabridged recordings (which may be 20 or 30 CDs!) would be so massive at 128kbps the download time would be unacceptably long. This situation has changed somewhat with the appearance of faster broadband.

All change!
But now EMI has announced that it will allow its recordings to be downloaded as unprotected MP3s through iTunes – for a small extra sum. This is because it is now increasingly accepted by music companies and publishers (including Naxos AudioBooks) that while there is some file sharing, it is relatively minimal when compared with the amount of potential legal downloads.
This isn’t the first time that unprotected MP3s have been offered. Emusic, one of the larger download companies (though still much smaller than iTunes) has, as its business platform, a) unprotected MP3 files and b) a subscription format. But the lack of DRM protection has meant that top music and publishing houses have not allowed their content to be sold through Emusic. It looks like this will change now.

And where does this leave you, the audiobook listener? Well, watch this space. The numbers of titles we are offering for download is increasing regularly. Soon we will have all of our 350+ titles up – in outstanding sound quality (especially designed for us, as it balances the need of the spoken word, the music interludes and a manageable sound format).
The files are all unprotected, so you can transfer them onto any device for your own playing convenience without any hindrances.
And meanwhile, the rest of the world will catch up. Within two or three years, there will be download shops with the ease of use like ours everywhere… but we feel we are among the first and the best for classic audiobooks.

Try us out!

Nicolas Soames

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