by Tom McNamara / May 14, 2018
Audible is Amazon's audiobook division, acquired in 2008 for a cool $300 million. As of 2018, the service claims over 200,000 audio programs across books, magazines, newspapers, and other media. You can buy audiobooks directly, and you can sign up for a subscription starting at $14.95 a month with a free 30-day trial, which grants you a credit every month to buy any book in the catalog, plus other perks. How does it compare to rivals like Downpour and Barnes & Noble?
The app is straightforward and well-designed: When you first open the Audible app, it will go straight to the list of audiobooks in your cloud. With each book listed, you can see who narrates the audiobook and how long the recording is. To download it, just tap on the book cover, at which point the app will tell you the size of the file. If you tap on other books, they will get queued up to download in sequence (as opposed to all at the same time).
You can sort books by length, title, and the author's name. It defaults to sorting by the most recently purchased audiobook. We noticed that the downloads were not fast, but you can begin listening after you've gotten just a few megabytes. If you want to shop while you wait, there's a Discover tab accessible from a button on the bottom of the screen, and the Channels tab that contains a variety of free original podcasts, from stand-up comedy recorded live to a documentary series on a Mexican border town besieged by a drug cartel.
Last but not least, we'll call out the car mode. This enlarges a few key controls -- the play/pause button, a 30-second rewind, and a bookmark (referred to as a "clip" within the app) so that they're easier to press when you have your phone mounted on your dashboard. This is handy if you don't have Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
Credit system is generous: While you pay up to $14.95 a month to get one audiobook credit, it can be used on any book, regardless of price. And if you decide that you don't like the book, you can exchange it for another one "at any time," for free. If the book will cost less than $14.95, you can opt to pay for it directly during checkout and save the credit for something else. If you don't use your credit that month, it just rolls over to the next one, so you don't lose it -- although you're limited to a maximum of six credits in the bank.
Lastly, you don't lose access to any of your audiobooks if you cancel your Audible subscription. They're yours to keep, either in Amazon's cloud storage or downloaded for offline listening.
If you cancel your subscription, you lose your credits, but you can pause your membership for up to 90 days, once a year. You can also upgrade from the default "Gold Monthly" to "Platinum Monthly" which gets you two credits per month instead of one, and it increases your credit cap from six to 12. Or you can sign up for "Gold Annual" where you pay $149.50 once a year, which works out to $12.46 a month and raises your cap to 18 credits.
If you sign up on this Amazon page, you'll get two credits in your first month, instead of one.
Subscribers get potent discounts on audiobook purchases: Amazon offers an additional 30 percent off all audiobooks if you subscribe to Audible. This sometimes makes the audiobook cheaper than the actual book. And if you go through audiobooks frequently enough, that discount can go a long way toward paying for the subscription.
If you already own the Kindle version of a book, you may get a separate Audible discount, which can also be very aggressive; after we managed to dig up the section on Amazon's site that shows you all of your Kindle books that have the Whispersync for Voice feature, we discovered a price tag of just $1.99 for the audiobook version of Kazuki Kaneshiro's GO, which in the year 2000 won the Naoki Prize, Japan's equivalent to a Pulitzer. For reference, we found the audiobook over at Barnes & Noble for $28.99. B&N does not have a subscription program or discount.
This is an extreme example, but there did generally seem to be more audiobook savings available at Amazon than at competing stores. We found Dan Simmons' classic sci-fi novel Hyperion in audiobook form for $3.99, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale read by Claire Danes for $9.99, unabridged.
Amazon currently has over 100,000 books in this Whispersync for Voice library, aka "Kindle Books with Audible Narration." However, the available method for looking through your Kindle library for matching audiobooks can't be sorted, and you have to keep clicking a "load more" button at the bottom of the page to keep getting more listings.
Tight integration with Amazon Alexa and Echo: If you have one of the company's Echo devices, you can ask Alexa to open one of your audiobooks and play it on her speaker (or on another set of speakers via a standard 3.5mm audio cable, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi). Amazon has a special shopping category just for Alexa-friendly Bluetooth speakers. You can also ask her what books are popular right now, and if you have an Echo Show (the one with the screen), you can ask her to show you your Kindle or Audible library.
Separately from the Audible service, Alexa can also play a professionally narrated bedtime story audiobook for free, via the Amazon Storytime skill. Skills are basically apps that are specific to Echo devices.
Support for Android Auto and Apple Carplay: Instead of having to wrangle a car's often finicky Bluetooth connection and/or sluggish infotainment system, you can just use Google's and Apple's car interface instead; just connect to your car via USB cable, wait a second for the phone to get connected, open the app, and choose your book.
DRM forces you to use the Audible app: Like Amazon's e-books, Audible's digital rights management restrictions on audiobook files prevent you from making archival backup copies, reselling, trading, or donating, so the lines between "owning" and merely "possessing" are blurred.
Some audiobooks may be available in MP3 form, but this appears to apply only to books whose copyrights have expired. For everything else, you'll be dealing with the company's proprietary AAX audio file that can only be played within the Audible app (or via an Echo), forever. If you prefer another media player app, or if you want your audiobooks available on a device that can't use the Audible app, you're out of luck.
Unfortunately, competitive alternatives are hard to come by. Downpour is Audible's biggest rival that offers DRM-free downloads, but its library is also limited to about 23,000 titles. And Barnes & Noble doesn't tend to have competitive pricing.
If you're OK with its digital rights restrictions, Audible offers a wide selection with lots of discounts, handy integration with Echo devices and car infotainment systems, and an intuitive mobile app.