The Best Player for Audiobooks and Podcasts

Tape with audiobooks and podcastsAlthough all portable players can play audiobooks and podcasts, few of them can do it well. In this article I suggest, based on my personal experience, what the perfect player for audiobooks and podcasts should look like.

Player matters

Audiobooks and podcasts become very popular medium of information. One cause of such popularity is a fact, that audio material, by its nature, has many advantages over text. However, an important reason for audiobooks spread is the creation of portable audio players.

Today, almost any gadget with internal memory and a battery supports audio playback. You can use a mobile phone, a communicator, PDA or a music player to listen to podcast or audiobook.

Personally, I enjoy listening to audiobooks and podcasts for many years. After I’ve tried many various devices, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that some of them are far more appropriate for this purpose.

Newer isn’t better

Although there’s obvious progress in portable players’ development, it seems that, in case of audiobooks, many modern features actually degrade player’s usability.

Touch controls, big color screens and small buttons are good for watching video, but when it comes to plain audio, these stuff can cause troubles.

Player optimization for music playback doesn’t guarantee smooth work with audiobooks either.

The perfect player

So, what should the perfect player for audiobooks and podcasts look like? Based on my personal experience, I defined the following must-have features for such a player:

  • Bookmarks support
  • Proper search support
  • Tactile control
  • Large monochrome display with landscape orientation
  • Enough storage capacity
  • Good file browser

Bookmarks support

Proper bookmarks support is a foundation stone. Without it, you can’t correctly resume the playback after a shutdown or a track change – you have to remember files you are listening to and current position for every file to restore it later. Needles to say, it’s not very exciting experience, especially in a case of a poorly implemented search (in that case, you’re obliged to hold “fast forward” or “rewind” button for minutes to find the right position in a large audio file).

I distinguish the following types of bookmarks support:

  • Player correctly resumes audio playback after shutdown.
  • Player restores position of playback on per-file basis.
  • Player has capacity to add any number of bookmarks for any file.

The absolute minimum is a capacity to resume playback where you left off after turning the player off and then on. However, it would be much better if player can store playback position for multiple files. Such an ability helps a lot when you listen to different books and podcasts at a time (or when you alternate audiobooks with music). These are two kinds of automatic bookmarks support.

Support for manual bookmarking is a different way to resume playback, which has its own pros and cons. The advantages are that you can manually mark a file to quickly return to it later (without searching through a file system), also, you can store multiple bookmarks for the same file. The disadvantage is you have to do more actions by yourself (which is usually error-prone).

Which type of bookmarking support is better? It seems that automatic bookmarking is suitable for listening to podcasts (because each podcast is usually represented by only one file), and support for manual bookmarking is a convenient feature for audiobooks (to remember current files). Certainly, it’s better to have both.

Proper search support

Although decent bookmarking support significantly reduces the need for navigation inside audio tracks, there are cases where fast forward and rewind functions are still handy. For instance, you can use them to do the following:

  • repeat the last sentence;
  • omit an unwanted episode;
  • skip a commercial insertion;
  • find a particular place inside audio file (in case you have no bookmark).

Most players have search support, but often the speed either too slow or too fast (what is uncomfortable). An adjustable search speed is a partial solution, because any selected speed is constant, while preferable speeds for different action vary. (i. e. you may want a slow speed to repeat a phrase, and a fast one to find a particular episode).

Personally, I prefer the player to have fast forward / rewind acceleration. Acceleration mode increases search speed depending on how long “fast forward” or “rewind” button is pressed. This gives, on the one hand, means to easily skip small portions of audio, and, on the other hand, a tool for fast navigation inside long tracks. Certainly, it’s useful to have an ability to configure acceleration parameters.

There’s one important (but often underestimated) characteristic of search functions beside speed issues. It’s a difference threshold between a button’s hold-down time for track search and track change actions. The larger threshold is, the more likely you are to choose next or previous track instead of fast-forwarding or rewinding (so you have to select your file again and restore the precise position inside it). No doubt, only a player with clear distinction between search and track change actions can save you from going mad and tearing your hair out.

Tactile control

When you listen to audiobook or podcast it’s likely you have to control your player more frequently than when you listen to music. Speech is a more subtle entity comparing to the music – often you need to pause the playback for a moment, repeat the sentence, skip a commercial insertion, raise or lower the volume, change the track, etc… Who wants to bother removing the player from a pocket or interrupting pleasant rest just to operate a brand-new touchscreen (or a touch wheel)?

Tactile control implies the following:

  • Player has palpable controls (like buttons) for all basic actions.
  • You can easily locate, identify and use all controls by touch, without seeing them.
  • You can operate all controls using one hand only.
  • It’s unlikely to activate any control unintentionally.

Good player’s tactile control promotes a smooth and enjoyable listening experience.

Large monochrome display with landscape orientation

Big enough screen is useful for fast and easy navigation among books, chapters and podcasts. Landscape orientation of the screen gives more horizontal resolution in order to avoid annoying titles scrolling.

Although colors on screen look cool, it’s no surprise that color display is a pointless feature for pure audio player. Monochrome display, on the contrary, is comfortable for the eyes and has no problems with visibility in a bright light.

Enough storage capacity

Why is the player’s capacity important? Usually, a typical audiobook consumes more storage space than an average album of music. Besides, it’s handy to store all chapters of audiobook together. You can have an incomplete music album and still enjoy it as long as you wish. But, as for audiobook’s chapters, sooner or later you will need every one of them.

Personally, I don’t like to update player’s memory every time I’m going to listen to the next part of an audiobook. Also, I have a habit to listen to many audiobooks at a time, and, depending on my mood, to add podcasts or music to my listening. That’s why I consider storage capacity important.

Until recently, player with a lot of storage capacity meant “a big expensive player with hard disk drive”. But, fortunately, because of a flash memory prices drop, today we can find handy and inexpensive portable players with 4-16GB flash memory inside. Apparently, such capacity is enough for comfortable listening to audiobooks and podcasts.

If you intend to interchange large amounts of audio material, you may also consider using player with memory card slot for removable flash cards (like microSD). Many up-to-date players support removable cards, although such support is often bounded by 2GB or 4GB card limitation.

Good file browser

Some players show all audio files in a single flat list, what is by no means suitable for listening to audiobooks. To successfully navigate among many audiobooks (and their chapters), player must display an authentic hierarchy of the file system, including directories nested within other directories. It’s better to avoid limits either in the numbers of directories on the same level, or in the level of nesting.

Metadata tags (like ID3 tags) are a controversial issue. They can hold additional information about audio file beside the content of a filename. Sometimes that can be useful, but:

  • it is harder to edit tags than the name of file,
  • tags are intended for music and therefore store properties, directly inapplicable to audiobooks and podcasts (such as “artist”, “album”, “genre” and so on),
  • displaying of excess metadata requires scrolling,
  • often audio files lack tag information or include incorrect tags.

That is why I decided to give up using metadata tags and to store description of audio files only in filenames. Usually, I assign short but meaningful names to podcasts immediately before downloading.

It is up to you whether to relay on tags, however, you can avoid a great deal of confusion in this matter by choosing portable player with optional metadata tags’ usage.

Miscellaneous features

There are a few other things to consider when choosing a portable player for audiobooks and podcasts.

Player should allow to play audio files by directory structure (don’t reorder them by metadata tags). Support for continuous playing through a sequence of directories is essential to handle audiobooks divided in separate folders.

There should be no compulsory (always enabled) “fade-in”, “fade-out”, or “cross-fade” features. Obviously, they are not compatible with speech.

Player should supports many audio formats (like mp3, wma, ogg, mp4, flac, etc). Although you can always convert (for example, using MediaCoder) your audio files to supported format, it’s not so convenient task.

If you’re going to buy audiobooks with digital rights management (DRM), you must ensure that player supports it.

Conclusion

I laid down the basic guidelines for choosing portable player for audiobooks and podcasts. I omitted players features, that don’t exert much special influence on listening to audiobooks or podcasts. They are:

  • design of the player (size, shape, weight, color, etc),
  • type of the storage (HDD or flash),
  • type and capacity of a battery,
  • external interface (mini-USB or some proprietary one),
  • speed of files transfer,
  • quality of sound,
  • sound processing capabilities (like equalizer),
  • operating systems support,
  • price.

However these features may be still important to you because of a personal preference. All need to be weighed before making a decision. That’s why, unfortunately, there’s no perfect player for everyone.

As for me, I have five portable audio players (not counting mobile phone, PDA and Sony Reader), and all of them are far from ideal (from my point of view, of course). Next player I am going to buy is one with Rockbox support.

Rockbox is an open source firmware for many digital audio players. It aims to be considerably more functional and efficient than stock firmwares while remaining easy to use and customizable. At the moment, it looks like it’s the only software that good for listening to audiobooks and podcasts. Everything you need to use Rockbox is to have a supported player.

I hope the information will be useful to you. If you have suggestions for extending or improving the article, feel free to contact me.

15 Comments

  1. Linda says:

    I am not very tech savy, but like to use MP3 player for podcasts and book downloads from the library.(Being retired I cannot afford to buy books from audible.com etc.) I have been using a Creative Zen V+ (4GB) for 2 years now and have listened to about 65 books on this player. I am very happy with it except that it are that it crashes if I try to fast forward too much and if I use the pause feature for too long it reverts to the beginning of the track.
    I belong to three book clubs and most of my friends would like a simple player that bookmarks easily so you can switch between books or pause easily and return to your place. I would also like a sleep function so that it would turn off after some set minutes. It must also be easy to fast forward or reverse. Do you have any suggestions as to what manufacturers we should look??

  2. Pavel says:

    If you’re looking for good bookmarks support, I recommend you to check http://www.rockbox.org/. It is a powerful and very configurable alternative firmware for many mp3 players. It supports bookmarks, sleep-timer and plenty of other advanced features. The only drawback is that you have to manually install the firmware on supported player (it’s not so hard to do).

  3. Jim Spencer says:

    So, which brands,models,etc. come close to this ideal ? Thanks in advance, Jim Spencer

  4. Pavel says:

    It seems that Rockbox is the best solution at the moment. Thus you can try these models: http://www.rockbox.org/twiki/bin/view/Main/TargetStatus.

  5. Martha Sheppard says:

    I lack any knowledge on this subject; the only thing I do know is that I have restarted by exercise regimen, listen to cd audio books in the car and would like to do the same as I’m exercising
    I would like some recommendations for some/a basic model that I won’t get so frustrated using that I’ll end up not using at all!
    Would appreciate any or all comments

  6. RoShFe says:

    FYI: … While I agree that RockBox is an awesome solution for people listening to MP3 audiobooks, it will unfortunately not help those of us using DRM protected WMA audiobooks similar to most of the titles available from our public libraries via Overdrive.

    As per the Rockbox website FAQ (http://www.rockbox.org/twiki/bin/view/Main/GeneralFAQ#Will_Rockbox_play_WMA_files) “It is very unlikely that Rockbox will be able to play protected WMA files.” and can attest to this personally as I have loaded it onto my Sansa e260

    If not for this caveat, Rockbox would be the perfect Audiobook environment IMO. If your Audiobooks are not DRM protected, I agree with Pavel 100%

    Cheers…

  7. Don says:

    Pavel, I applaud your well thought out and discussed thoughts on this subject – but since many of us use the free downloadable audiobooks from the library, (overdrive) which are not rockbox compatable – that leaves us with discussing the current retail selection.

    My CREATIVE Zen V Plus recently died (second to do so in 2 years) and I need a replacement that does not simply “resume” as Apple Ipod does. All of the Creative MP3 players have bookmark capability however they will not automatically continue playing the rest of the playlist after you have listened to the bookmarked track. I am looking for suggestions.

  8. Bookwoman says:

    There is a Sony Walkman CD player that has a bookmark feature. I wouldn’t listen to CDs without it.

  9. KarenLaVelle says:

    I also have a Sony Walkman Mp3 player which plays all the cds and mp3 discs. This is a terrific little player and it beats my little tiny mp3player because it saves my place and I don’t have to spend 2 hours searching through files. my tiny mp3 player sucked every file on my computer and I don’t know how to get a single book without it downloading the entire computer everytime I plug it up to charge it. It also won’t play my self-recorded stuff off the computer. I prefer either a tape player or cd at the moment.

  10. Maria says:

    Thanks for the article, Pavel. All the ideas are very true.
    I, too, love audiobooks and podcasts and listen to them a lot both for entertainment and for learning foreign languages.
    I’ve been happily using a quite simple and inexpensive Cowon U2 (http://reviews.cnet.com/mp3-players/cowon-iaudio-u2-1gb/1707-6490_7-31129769.html) player for more than 5 years now, and I must say, it’s IDEAL for audiobooks.
    It works without a problem with the folder structure, there are bookmarks (one per file, but I never needed more), A-B playback, a playlist, configurable search speed, and the user interface is brilliant, simple and intuitive. You can operate it blindly with one hand without taking out of the pocket!

    Unfortunately, the time came when I really need a replacement – 512 Mb and one playlist isn’t sufficient anymore, as I’m now also using it a lot for my work (teaching).

    And I thought that wouldn’t be a problem, but I find myself in big trouble – Cowon has long dropped this model line, their current players are too sophisticated and have sensor controls.

    I tried ‘Transcend T.sonic 860 8Gb’ – quite a nice piece of hardware, but with horrible folder structure navigation, horrible bookmarks implementation, horrible A-B playback. The features are there, but they are unusable for my purposes.
    For example, if I start playing a file “track56.mp3″ from a bookmark – the device plays it and then stops, it never takes me to file “track57.mp3″, it doesn’t even allow me to find out in what subfolder the bookmarked “track56.mp3″ resides.

    Is it in /Coursebook3/Level2/Disk3/ or

    is it in /Coursebook1/Level1/Disk14/

    - if I don’t remember it – I’m lost for ever!

    Pavel, could you name the players that you own that are the closest to the ideal audiobook mp3 player?

    (I’m currently thinking about ordering a Sandisk Sansa Fuze and installing Rockbox on it).

  11. Pavel says:

    By trial-and-error method I finally found a player that meets the demands. I bought Cowon D2+ 16GB (with 32GB memory card) and use it for both audiobooks and lossless music.

    Pros:
    – large high-quality touchscreen (2.5 in, 320×240 pixels, 16M colors)
    – long battery life (up to 52 hours for audio playback)
    – expandable memory (up to 32GB SD/SDHC/MMC card)
    – 3 customizable hardware buttons
    – standard Mini-USB connector (drag-and-drop file transfer)
    – outstanding sound quality
    – many supported audio formats (MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC, WAV, APE)
    – comprehensive bookmarks support (up to 256 bookmarks, multiple bookmarks per file, proper handling of file sequences)
    – playback resume after power-off
    – dynamic playlist (up to 256 entries)
    – playback boundaries (all files, folder, single file)
    – folder browsing (gestures supported)
    – progress bar with instant navigation
    – audible.com support
    – bonus features: video, skins, flash

    Cons:
    – dimensions (78 × 55.4 × 16.6 mm) and weight (91 g)
    – not enough hardware buttons (3 instead of 5)
    – hardware buttons are too small and too close together
    – “resume” requires two extra clicks
    – annoying database corruptions
    – high price

    Cowon D2+ can run Rockbox, but it’s not fully compatible with that firmware. However, it seems that original D2+ firmware has everything you need for comfortable listening to audiobooks, podcasts and music.

  12. Maria says:

    Thanks for the info!

    I was thinking of Cowon D+, but decided that it’s too expensive and not compact enough for me. Maybe I should reconsider. How convenient is it ot operate it ‘blindly’ with one hand in a pocket?

    Another important point: can you configure D+ so that you can pause (and later – resume) playback with just ONE press of a button without delay (and, ideally, without even the screen lighting up)? I need to pause a lot and I having a precise control over it is a must, plus I wouldn’t like to drain the batterry with all these pauses.

  13. Pavel says:

    On second thoughts I added a few more entries to the “cons” list above.

    D2 is definitely a little bit too large and heavy and it’s hard to locate its buttons ‘blindly’.

    Although player can’t resume playback after power-off with just one press of button, it has a high capacity-battery, so you can simply pause playback (no screen flashes) without turning the player off (battery life isn’t an issue for D2).

    Anyway, I suggest you to try the player for yourself before forming an opinion about whether it’s right for you.

  14. Maria says:

    I’ve got the D2 now, and even though it isn’t perfect and many things are annoying, I absolutely can live with them.
    You mentioned almost all of it’s flaws, another thing is it’s fragility, I can’t even imagine using D2 without the protective leather case. Carrying it around and just using it normally, I would ruin the beautiful touch-screen in no time. And the case of course, makes it even bulkier and even less handy.

    I also got a Sandisk Sansa Fuze to test. Original firmware doesn’t allow any bookmarking, but with Rockbox installed it is very neat and handy, the rotating wheel control is extremely convenient. And the player is very inexpensive!

    Still, I’m reluctunt to part with the D2. It’s over the top for audiobooks, but it’s great if you also love music and use it to watch videos (the screen is larger and much better than that of the Fuze).

  15. sigdelta tau says:

    Thx for the info you/ve already provided.

    Pls advise an MP3 for library books that bookmarks easily. Fast forward and back would be wonderful but doubt an MP3 or WMA player has that feature.

    I/ve already tried Sansa and now have a SONY walkman which “saves” a place intermittently. Is there an “easy to use” bookmarking MP3 player sold today?

    TY! TY!

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