Tuesday, June 23, 2009

WMA & MP3 & iPods, oh my!

When we started the audiobooks consortium three years ago, it was a little easier to understand which players and computers would work with the service. But with the addition of MP3 audiobooks and new iPod ( & Windows) compatibility, things can get a little, well, confusing. Allow me to try to explain the formats and player compatibility:


The audiobook consortium buys two types of audiobooks: MP3 titles and WMA titles. Sometimes we only own one of the two types, sometimes both types. Before I explain why at times we cannot purchase both types, let me explain the two audiobook formats.

MP3: This is a type of audio format. Because it is the most basic format for audio files, the word "MP3"  tends to get used in a very generic manner for any type of music format or music player. MP3 files are free of DRM or Digital Rights Management.

All players that can play the WMA audiobooks can also play the MP3 titles. In addition, all Apple players, Mac computers, many generic MP3 players, and phones with MP3 playback can play these MP3 audiobooks. See a complete list of known compatible MP3 players.

WMA: This stands for Windows Media Audio. This audio format was developed by Microsoft and is a proprietary audio format. In addition to being a proprietary format, the WMA titles found in our audiobooks collection contains DRM. The DRM controls the checkout period and encrypts the audiobook after seven days, making the audiobook file useless on your computer after the loan period expires. This type of audiobook file requires a player that can handle WMA files and the Digital Rights Management. Not every MP3 player has the ability to play WMA files. Only a select number can play WMA files that include DRM. (And just to confuse things further, some players marketed as WMA players are not compatible with our service because they cannot manage the DRM. Be sure to purchase a WMA player that can play WMA DRM files.)

Update: From OverDrive's FAQs

In order to use OverDrive WMA Audiobook titles on a device other than an iPod or an iPhone, the device must play DRM-protected Windows Media content, and either support the bit rate of 32kbps or be able to transcode 32kbps files to a supported bit rate. You may want to check device documentation to determine if a device supports DRM-protected Windows Media content encoded at 32kbps.


For this reason, if you are looking to purchase a new player (other than an iPod) that will work with this system, I strongly encourage you to view the list of compatible WMA (DRM) players and purchase a player from this list.

iPod Compatibility: Until last week, iPod users could only play the MP3 audiobooks. Why? Because the Windows-based (WMA DRM) audiobooks could not be downloaded to a Mac computer or transferred to an Apple-based player.

So what's changed in the past week? A lot! I'm happy to say that if you have access to a Windows-based computer, you can plug in your iPod and transfer a WMA audiobook to it. You'll need to have the newest version of the OverDrive Media Console (version 3.2),  iTunes installed on the Windows computer and set aside plenty of time to transfer the audiobook to your iPod, but it works! I'll be putting together a longer set of instructions in the near future...

Mac Compatility: But what if you use a Mac computer? If you are a Mac user, like me, I'm sorry to say that the Windows-based WMA audiobooks cannot be downloaded to a Mac. According to OverDrive, they do not have plans to develop a way to make the WMA audiobooks available to Mac computer users.

Personally, I was able to connect my iPod to a Windows-based computer and transfer the audiobook without any problems when I reconnected it to my Mac. There is a note in OverDrive's tech support instructions stating that only Windows formatted iPods will be compatible with the WMA audiobooks. However, my iPod touch had never been used on a Windows-based computer, and was able to accept the WMA audiobook transfer. Please comment on the sucess or failures you've had with your iPods!

Purchasing Formats: So why do we sometimes own only one format or both formats of an audiobook? As I mentioned earlier, until recently, we could only purchase WMA audiobooks. This spring, we had the opportunity to purchase MP3 audiobooks, thereby making the service a little iPod and Mac-friendly.

Only a few audiobook publishers create their content in MP3 format. A vast majority of publishers only release their content (to us) in the WMA DRM format. For that reason, a majority of our titles will continue to be in the WMA format. However, when a title is published in both WMA and MP3 format, I tend to purchase the title as an MP3 so Mac users will be able to enjoy the audibook, too!

So, this was a lot longer and more confusing than I hoped it would be! In summary:
  • If you've been using the service for a while now, just know that since you are using a compatible WMA (DRM) player, you can enjoy any audiobook.
  • If you are a Mac user, you will only be able to use the MP3 audiobooks.
  • If you are an iPod user and have access to a PC, you will be able to checkout all of the MP3 titles and a majority of the WMA titles. (Look at the Digital Rights Information listed at the bottom of each audiobook record and see if the transfer to an iPod device is permitted. Some publishers of WMA audiobooks have decided to not allow their audiobooks to be transferred to an iPod.)
  • If you have a non-iPod and non-WMA DRM player, but your player (or phone) is listed as a known compatible player of the MP3 audiobooks, you can listen to any of the MP3 titles.

In an upcoming post, I hope to cover Windows to iPod transfers.