Sit back, relax and enjoy a great book with the best audiobook apps, stores and services
Audiobooks have been the surprise publishing trend of the last few years. While UK sales of physical books are falling and ebooks slowing rising, sales of audiobooks have surged 43% in the last year.
It’s not much of a challenge to work out why. You can listen to your favourite books through headphones on the long commute home or through the speakers in your car. You can play them at home through a Bluetooth speaker or relax before you go to sleep. And while listening to an audiobook is a different experience to reading, nothing beats the drama or impact of an audiobook read out by a decent actor – and some of the biggest and best audiobooks have found world-class names to read them.
To get into audiobooks you’ll need to do two things: sign up for a service and download the accompanying app. Some may be tied into accounts you have already, like a Google, Amazon or Kobo account, making your decision easier, but which apps will give you the best listening experience – and access to the best library of books?
How to choose the best audiobook app for you
In a way, the app isn’t really as important as the service or store it’s tied into, but this is where things get complicated. Most of the stores work on a subscription model, where you pay £7 to £8. Your subscription gives you credit for one book per month, which you can usually spend on any book in the library. As a sweetener, most of the services offer one month as a free trial, including your first credit.
Once you’ve spent your monthly credit you can buy books with real cash, though the cost of a book can be anywhere from 50p to £25, with you paying more for the newest releases. However, stores tend to discount the most popular new books and you can find some deals if you look, so you can build up an audiobook library without spending a fortune. What’s more, Amazon, which owns Audible, will give you money off the Audible book if you’ve already bought the Kindle eBook. You can even go between the two with the apps bookmarking your progress as you go!
What about listening to your audiobooks?
Most apps offer the same basic set of features. You can play and pause your audiobook (obviously), select chapters or skip forwards and backwards in small periods of ten to 30 seconds. You can bookmark a moment to come back to it later and often speed up or slow down the speed. Speed it up too much and it’ll sound weird, but it’s a good way to get through slow-moving titles in less time.
More advanced features include the ability to make notes attached to a bookmark, or set a sleep timer to halt playback so you can get some shuteye (or avoid missing your tube or train stop).
Most downloadable audiobooks are tied into an app/store ecosystem, but you can find and download DRM-free, public domain audiobooks from sites like LibriVox and OpenCulture. Many of the files are in an MP3 or M4A format which you can play through a standard music player apps. However, there are advantages to playing them in a dedicated audiobook reader app, like Smart Audio Book player (see below).
READ NEXT: The best ebook readers
The best audiobook apps available in 2019
1. Audible: The best all-round audiobooks app
With the clout of its parent, Amazon, behind it, Audible is the 800-pound gorilla of the audiobooks jungle. Its library covers hundreds of thousands of recordings, and it can afford some tempting 2 for 1 offers along with heavy discounting of some major titles, though blockbusters still tend to come in at £22 to £27.
There’s even better news if you’re a heavy Kindle user. A Kindle Unlimited subscription gives you access to thousands of Audible audiobooks, whether or not you subscribe to Audible itself, while you can get a discount on the Audible version if you’ve already bought the Kindle eBook. The eBook and audible versions will even sync, so that you can carry on reading where you finished listening (or vice versa). It also works brilliantly with Amazon’s Echo smart-speaker family, with Alexa able to pick up where you left off on the app with a simple “Alexa, continue my audiobook.”
The app has a slightly cluttered layout, but it’s packed with features including a sleep timer and a speed control slider that runs all the way from 0.5x to 3.5x. Audible’s Clip tool allows you not just to bookmark a passage, but make notes and save them for later. There’s also a handy ‘big picture’ mode for use when you’re in the car, plus a ‘Button-Free’ mode you can work by swiping. This is the best of the subscription-based apps and the one with the biggest library, and hard to ignore if you already own a Kindle or an Echo.
READ NEXT: Full Audible review
2. Audiobooks.com: The audiobooks app with the VIP treatment
Audiobooks gives you a little extra for your monthly fee, with a credit for any one book from its premium selection plus one from a choice of VIP titles handpicked each month. Get through those and things start to get expensive, with prices ranging up to £27 for the latest bestsellers. However, Audiobooks has some good deals and you can pick up recordings of classics for less.
The app works well for playback, with all the basic play, pause and skip functions and a playback speed control that runs from 1x to 2x in 0.25x increments. The sleep timer runs up to 90 minutes, and you can bookmark your current point and leave a note. The only oddity is that the books are divided into tracks rather than chapters, with some tracks running for hours and containing multiple chapters. Audiobooks can’t match Audible for its massive library, but it’s a solid alternative if you fancy getting two monthly titles for the price of one.
3. Google Play Books: The best subscription-free audiobooks app
Google’s audiobooks are tied into the Google Play store and use the same Google Play Books app you use to read its eBooks. This makes it a simple, subscription-free option, and while this means doing without free credits, Google Play Books makes up for it with some excellent deals on blockbuster titles, genre favourites and more. The selection is extensive, with a large choice of BBC radio adaptations, and If you’d rather steer clear of a subscription and pay for what you read, look no further.
The app itself feels quite stripped back, but beyond the options to play/pause and skip back and forwards 30 seconds you can select a different chapter, switch the playback speed from 0.5x to 3x with a slider, and even trim out silences automatically – a real time-saver with some audiobooks that leave epic waits in place. We also love the Smart Resume feature, which doesn’t resume playback exactly where you paused or stopped, but at the start of a suitable sentence or paragraph, giving you a chance to ease yourself back into the flow. All in all, it makes for one of the best listening experiences around.
4. Kobo Books: The best audiobooks app for value
Having spent years pushing the UK’s only credible rival to the Kindle ecosystem, it’s only natural that Kobo would take on Audible with its own audiobooks app and store. It’s a well-designed app that, during playback, puts the cover front and centre with a readout of how many hours of playback you have left, plus an interesting scrolling meter to show how fast you’re moving through the book. The usual pause, play and skip options are also in place, and Kobo wins bonus brownie points with its playback speed options, which go all the way from 0.6x to 3x in 0.2x intervals. If you want an audiobook app that can cover everything from Dan Brown to Dostoyevsky, this is it.
Kobo runs the usual one credit per month subscription scheme, and any books beyond that can get very expensive, with typical prices for current bestsellers in the £19 to £30 area. However, at £7 per month it’s cheaper than Audiobooks.com and Audible, and you can buy extra packs of three credits for just £20, which makes the whole business more affordable. Kobo can’t beat Audible for quality or quantity, but it arguably wins on value.
5. Scribd: The best audiobooks app for heavy readers
Unlike most audiobooks apps Scribd runs on a pure subscription model; pay your £8.99 per month and you can read or listen to anything on the service, much like a Netflix for audiobooks and eBooks. Titles are available to stream or download, and the only downside is that – as with Netflix – you can’t access any of the content you’re enjoying should you cancel your subscription. You never buy the books so you don’t get to keep them.
Scribd’s app covers eBooks, audiobooks and even magazines in one, not to mention publicly available PDF documents and sheet music. This sometimes causes confusion when you’re trying to work out what’s an audiobook and what’s an eBook and then make sure you get the right version, but it’s convenient having everything inside the one app. The audiobook player still includes all the standard features, including a playback speed control and sleep timer, though there doesn’t seem to be a way to sync progress between eBooks and audiobooks. While Scribd doesn’t have the same range of audiobooks as the biggest specialists and has an obvious US bias, you still get a good selection of new blockbusters and classics. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffer for voracious readers and listeners.
6. Blinkist: The best audiobooks app for a quick listen
Blinkist isn’t an audiobooks app in the traditional sense, but an interesting variant that’s built up a niche all of its own. The service cuts non-fiction books into bite-sized snippets called Blinks, giving you some of the key ideas and personality from the title but in a form you can digest over breakfast or on the way to work. You’re listening to something that’s been abridged, edited or entirely rewritten, and it’s not the best way to engage with really complex theories or ideas, but if you’re after business gurus, self-improvement and a spot of pop-psychology or science, this gives you a steady diet for the all-in subscription price of £10 per month or £5 per month if you pay for a year upfront.
The app gives you a choice or reading or listening to your Blinks, and the controls cover all the usual play, pause and skip fundamentals. You can also switch speeds between 0.5x and 2x, giving you the option of getting through Blinks of a lightweight book at lightning speed or slowing things down when the content gets complex. Short on time but keen to explore all the latest thinking? Blinkist could be your new essential app.
7. LibriVox: The best free audiobooks app
If you’re a voracious listener you’ll soon find out that audiobooks don’t come cheap. LibriVox gives you another option, with access to a good-sized catalogue of free recordings, all easily accessible from the app. Think of it as the audio equivalent of the free Project Gutenberg eBooks and, as there for obvious reasons the list skews heavily towards classics in the public domain. The app itself is fairly basic but it still packs in a sleep timer you can set for the end of the next chapter or a specific length of time. You’ll also have to steel yourself for some fairly ugly cover art from time to time. The free version includes unobtrusive ads, but you can pay £2 for an ad-free ‘Supporter’ version.
As for the recordings, the actual sound quality is usually great, but much depends on the readers – primarily American volunteers who run the range from dull and mildly disinterested after two chapters to lovable hams with a repertoire of dodgy accents, particularly with English and French classics. The good news is that if you don’t like one recording of a favourite, there’s often two or three alternative takes you can try. And, anyway, it’s hard to quibble when you’re paying nothing, right?
8. Smart AudioBook Player: The best audiobooks app for DIY downloads
Price: Free/£1.89 for Pro version | Download it from Google Play
You can get hold of free public domain audiobooks or rip your own from existing CDs, but you’ll still need an app to play them back. Smart AudioBook Player is one of the top options. Download your audiobook files into separate folders and it will keep them organised, track your progress across multiple books and enable you to add your own bookmarks. It’s compatible with the MP3, M4A, MOGG, and WMA formats, as well as the specialist M4B that many web-based audiobook libraries use. What’s more, as well as the usual playback features, you’ll find comprehensive speed controls and a graphic equaliser.
The only hassle here is transferring your audiobooks. While you can define a root folder which the app will scan for new titles, you’ll have to copy the individual book folders yourself, either via USB from your PC or using Dropbox or Google Drive. You’ll also need to download and select the cover art. If you’re happy with a bit of work, then Smart AudioBook Player does exactly what the name suggests, but if you just want to download and listen to public domain classics, then LibriVox will do it easier from within the one app.