Optimize your life #7 – A practical guide to the perfect audio book system

OK, in the previous article I wrote about why audio books are a great alternative to the radio.  This time, I’m going to make some specific recommendations about how to get yourself started.

1. Get an MP3 Player

First order of business…you need an MP3 player.  If you’ve joined the iPod generation already, no problem, you’re set.  Personally, I favor the convergent approach to gadgets…I’ve got a pocket in the back for my wallet, a pocket for keys, and a pocket for one more item…which means a smartphone.  So I use a Secure Digital flash card in conjunction with the excellent Pocket Tunes on my Treo 650 smartphone.  1GB of storage is enough to hold a few complete audio books (although by now there are larger sizes available), and Pocket Tunes is simply the definitive MP3 player for Palm PDA’s, hands down.

What this means is that you can get by with a really cheap 60 to 100 dollar MP3 player if you want to, or simply add some cheap flash memory to most phones.  To really optimize the experience, though, you’re going to want to pay attention to some of the extra details.

Try to pick a player that will remember your position in the book so you can pick up right where you left off when you get back in the car.  For example, Windows Media Player doesn’t remember where you leave off in audio tracks…and so we’ve found that audio books are a bit harder to manage on my friend’s Windows smartphone than my Treo with Pocket Tunes.

2. Choose a source for audio books.

Second, you need the books themselves.  Audible.com is the go to place on the Internet for audio books.  You can also try the ever popular iTunes if you own an Apple branded MP3 player.  In general, I recommend picking topics which you are unfamiliar with but would like to learn more about.  You’re getting some free time here, so why not branch out a little bit?  That’s my philosophy, but if you’ve been dying to read the latest Harry Potter book and haven’t had the time, go ahead and listen to that too!  There’s no wrong answer here.

Podcasts are also a burgeoning category of audio programming.  You can go to places like Odeo or iTunes for these as well.  Podcasts do solve the selection issues associated with radio programming.  On the other hand, they still suffer from the same information density problems.  If a podcast is very narrowly targeted to a particular area of interest, you’re more likely to extract some value out of it..which, I believe, is similar to what makes a successful blog.  But given the choice between a book or a podcast, I’ll usually choose the book.

Finally, friends and family often have books they aren’t using any more.  You can borrow them and return them when you’re done.  Simple and inexpensive!

One interesting thing to note about about audio books is that they can often take much less space than equivalent music.  I won’t get into the whole theory of audio compression here, but suffice it to say that you can squeeze a guy talking down much more than you can a guy singing with a bunch of instruments playing in the background.  In many cases, you can fit more hours of audio book programming onto an MP3 player than you can of music.

3. Find a way to patch your MP3 player into your car

While we have all had images of dancing black silhouettes of people with white headphones hammered into our subconscious, for safety reasons, you should not listen using headphones while driving.  Playing the books back through your car’s audio system will be more comfortable and probably sound better too.

Try one of the following options.

  1. A line-in or cassette adapter.  Both of these are easy to pick up at a Radio Shack, but most cars don’t have either of these input options nowadays.
  2. An FM transmitter.  This is the option I chose.  You plug the transmitter into your MP3 player, and it broadcasts on an FM frequency of your choice.  Tune your radio to that frequency, and you are good to go.  Nearly all cars have an FM radio, so this approach is almost guaranteed to work.  The downside to this approach is that you have to find a clear frequency to transmit on, and occasionally you’ll get bleed-through interference from other stations if you’re unlucky.  I chose the iRiver AFT-100 because it got good reviews and is cigarette lighter powered to boot.  Changing batteries?  No thanks!  Car powered is the way to go.
  3. A Bluetooth audio kit.  If you know what this is, you probably don’t need me to explain it to you.  A few cars support this option, and you’d probably need a smartphone MP3 player to even get started.
  4. iPod car kits.  The dominance of Apple’s MP3 player has led to a well stocked ecosystem of accessories.  Too many options here to count, go Google for them.

Once you have all three parts taken care of…the MP3 player, the audio books, and the connection to your car stereo system…you’re ready to dive in to the last part of this guide, which is how and when to listen.

The philosophy of listening to books while driving

It’s wise to remember that when listing to books and driving, your primary focus is still driving.  For the sake of being illustrative, let’s replace the word “driving” with the phrase “careening around town in a two ton block of metal at 70 miles an hour”.  Safety must be priority #1.

  1. Don’t be stupid.  People cause accidents every day because they fumble with cellphones, try to eat, put on makeup, or do any other number of silly things while trying to stay in control of a speeding car.  Messing around with your MP3 player while driving is pretty high on the list of dumb ways to go.  So keep your eyes on the road, jack.
  2. Build up a playlist beforehand.  You can avoid messing around with your MP3 player while driving by building up a nice long playlist of the files comprising your audio book.  And if you’ve followed some of the above tips, you also have an MP3 player that retains your position in the playlist.  Combine the two, and the only time you’ll have to touch your MP3 player is when you get in the car and when you get out.
  3. Listen when you have time and when you are driving “routine” routes.  If I’m traveling to a less familiar place where I’m not familiar with all of the turns and lane changes, I prefer to keep the books off and my attention on driving.  By the same token, I also don’t dive into my audio books if I’m just taking a 5 minute trip to the grocery store.  That’s too much context switching and not enough flow time.  I
    generally listen to audio books on my commute, where I know every inch of the road.  Interestingly enough, for me this creates a pretty good balance where I still get to listen to the radio without being saturated to the point where I’m completely bored by it.

Well folks, that’s all I’ve got.  Audio books are a great way to expand your horizons, and I hope this article has lent some clarity to the steps involved in making audio books a daily part of your commute.  Thanks for reading!

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