Audiobooks vs Reading: Is it better to listen than read?

Audiobooks vs Reading: Is it better to listen than read?
(Image credit: Amazon)

Are audiobooks better than eBooks and regular books? Or is the old way of reading superior? Anyone who has listened to Stephen Fry gently narrate his way through Mythos, or heard Hugh Bonneville and David Tennant crooning through the science fiction masterpieces of HG Wells will know why audiobooks are so special. Not only are you having a book read to you, but it’s being done by some of the most famous voices in the world. Piped directly to your ears from a smart device like a smartphone or a speaker, audiobooks can either help you relax and transport you to a different place, or they can fit in with a busy life while you’re cooking, cleaning, or in the middle of another school-run. But many will feel like listening to books is somehow ‘cheating’ or less intellectually stimulating.

There’s no doubt that regular books are cheaper, especially if you buy second-hand. There’s such joy to be had from digging through pre-loved books in a store, and finding a gem. However, the best audiobook services like Audible will give you regular discounts, free books for signing up, and regular prompts to make sure you’re making books a bigger part of your life, which is a different, more curated kind of discovery. There’s a lot to be said for personal focus and taste when selecting your next read.

(Image credit: Bose)

What’s more, reading and books can often be the thing to be sacrificed when we’re busy with work, childcare, and keeping a home, so anything that helps us get more literature in our lives can only be a good thing. Right? Well, mostly. If you’re reading for leisure, audiobooks are just fine, but if you’re looking to learn, a study published by Time Magazine demonstrated that students who listened to an audio lesson, rather than reading it, "scored an average of 28% lower on the quiz" they were given. Reasons cited were that you can’t highlight and (as easily) re-read sections of an audio lesson, whereas students and academics will regularly perform these activities with books.

For leisure, however, this is less important. So, in celebration of audiobooks, here are five reasons why you should try out the spoken word and supplement your regular books or eReaders with something a little more convenient for life in 2020.

1. They’re read to you… by celebrities

One of the main draws of audiobooks is that they are very, very low-effort on your behalf. No, it doesn’t take much to open a book and read it (or load one up on your Kindle), but the very act of reading means you’re static. You can’t read and use your eyes for something else, like walking, cleaning, or driving. Audiobooks free your eyes up for other tasks, letting you perform other activities while you absorb knowledge or experience amazing stories. The only downside to this is that studies have shown we ‘mentally drift’ when multitasking. According to the Time article: "Seconds (or minutes) can pass before we snap out of these little mental sojourns and refocus our attention".

What’s more, audiobooks are read by people whose whole careers are built around delivering dialogue. Many of the biggest stars of stage and screen record audiobooks of some of the biggest and best stories ever written, and they generally sound incredible when read aloud. With someone else reading you get to experience the emotions and pronunciation as it was intended, delivered by the best in the business.

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2. They take up zero space in luggage

Books? They’re heavy. When packing a bag for a vacation, or just picking up reading for work, you’re carrying extra weight and volume when you choose a normal book. Sure, eReaders are far smaller, but they still take up space and they’re another electronic device to look after if you’re carrying luggage or going away from home. The exception to this is eReader apps on your phone but… they’re far from a satisfying reading experience, and so are equally inferior to audiobooks.

Audiobooks, on the other hand, take up zero space. They exist on the smartphone you’re already carrying, and can be streamed to smart speakers or listened to via headphones or your phone’s own speaker. They’re economical forms of entertainment, and perfect for vacations, long journeys, and business trips.

3. You can easily experience them as a family

One of the lesser considered advantages of audiobooks is that they can be played to an audience of more than one. Connecting your device to a smart speaker, or just playing on a laptop or phone, means that you can listen along with your partner, or experience books with the whole family. Imagine being able to read all of Harry Potter with your kids, regardless of their literacy level. With audiobooks, you just can.

Of course, you could read a whole book out loud, and that’s an option. However, again, you can perform other tasks and activities while you listen. So you can do extra activities with kids, or cook as a family while the audiobook plays in the background.

Books vs Audiobooks - which is best?

(Image credit: Getty)

4. They fit around your life better

We have busy lives. Holding down a job, caring for family, keeping a home, and pursuing hobbies and charitable activities means we generally have far less time to sit down and read a book. Audiobooks fit around this busy lifestyle because you can listen while you do other things, or just grab five minutes of a book in between activities.

They’re ideal for commutes too, which most of us have. Sure, you can bring a book on the train or bus, but it’s awkward to read if you’re packed in with other people. And if you’re driving… it’s very dangerous to try and read a regular book. However, most smartphones will actually connect to car stereo systems, and play audiobooks through your in-car speakers, letting you experience a story as you drive.

5. Audiobooks help you relax

There’s a lot to be said for a soothing voice telling you a story, and audiobooks can help you relax. Reading itself helps to combat anxiety, and it can be a good form of relaxation and escapism, but audiobooks combine the dual benefits of experiencing a story, and having someone else’s voice gently speaking to you. What’s more, if you listen to audiobooks using noise-cancelling headphones you can literally block out the noise and just focus on a single voice and narrative, which is incredibly freeing.

There are even audiobooks specially designed to help aid relaxation, and many come free with subscriptions to services like Audible and They’re invaluable tools to help you manage anxiety, and get time and space for yourself. Sure, they're not as soothing as the best meditation apps, but they're a good way to blend relaxation with reading.

If you’re interested in more, we have a guide to the best audiobook services, with reviews of the most popular providers, based on research and our testing processes. While we don’t expect people to abandon regular books and eBooks any time soon, audiobooks can be a great supplement to both, and another great way to experience stories using the limited time you have.

Andy Hartup

Andy was the previous Editor-in-Chief of Top Ten Reviews. With over 18 years experience in both online and print journalism, Andy has worked for a host of world-leading tech and gaming brands, including PC Gamer and GamesRadar. He specializes in photography, technology and smart home, and has provided expert comment for sites like The Guardian. In his spare time Andy is an amateur photographer, and teaches at the National Film and TV School.