Optimal iTunes Import Settings for Audiobooks

You want to set iTunes to import audiobook CDs quite differently than you would for importing music. You don’t need to use a high bitrate; that leads to huge files, with little improvement in quality. (But see below if you have particularly sensitive ears.)

You also shouldn’t need stereo, because most audio books are mono; saving the left and right tracks only doubles the file size, without improving the sound. Last, you want to make sure the files are bookmarkable on your iPod; AAC files have better support for audio bookmarks than MP3 files do. In particular, with tools that have become available for podcasting, you can save “chapter marks” in AAC files, which are very useful (especially on an iPhone or iPod Touch); and there are other advantages of the AAC format, so that’s what I recommend.

How to Configure iTunes with Optimal Import Settings for Audiobooks

These instructions are written for iTunes 8/9/10. For older versions of iTunes, see the older instructions.

  1. Launch iTunes, and open the Preferences dialog. Make sure you are on the General section of the preferences dialog:
    iTunes Preferences, General section
  2. If you haven’t already, make sure the Books item (or Audiobooks if you are using iTunes 8) in the Show section is checked.
    This will display the Books/Audiobooks source list on the left side of the main iTunes window. The Books/Audiobooks item does not display by default.
  3. Set the When you insert a CD action to Show CD.
    You don’t want to auto-import, because when you import an audiobook there are a couple of steps which are easier to do before you import. If the import starts automatically, you’ll just have to cancel it.
  4. Check Automatically retrieve CD track names from Internet.
    This may auto-fill in some of your book’s metadata, though you have to be careful with audiobook information off the Internet.
  5. Click the Import Settings… button. You will see the Import Settings dialog:
    iTunes Preferences, AAC Encoder Settings dialog
  6. In the Import Using menu, choose AAC Encoder.
    This format provides higher quality and better support for audio bookmarks. It’s also the default setting.
  7. In the Setting menu, choose Spoken Podcast.
  8. Uncheck Use error correction when reading Audio CDs.
    This slows the import process…though it can help deal with dust or scratches on the disc, useful if you’re importing CDs from the public library, which are often seriously abused. But try it with this turned off first.
  9. Click OK to close the Import Settings dialog, and click OK again to close the iTunes Preferences panel, and go back to importing your audiobook. (Audio CDs or MP3 CDs)

Changing Your Settings Back for Music

Be sure you change your settings back before importing music CDs, or your music will sound terrible. If you’ve forgotten what your import settings were:

  1. From the Settings menu, choose Custom…
  2. In the AAC Encoder dialog, click the Default Settings button.
    iTunes Preferences, AAC Encoder Custom Settings

This will return your import settings to the iTunes defaults, which in iTunes 10 is to use the AAC Encoder at the iTunes Plus setting.

If You Have “Audiophile” Ears

The import settings described above essentially mimic the audio quality which is provided by Audible.com’s “Type 4” format, formerly their highest quality (and largest) audio files. Those files are digitized in a single mono channel at 32 kbps with a 22 kHz sample rate. This is a huge step down from the quality of audio on standard Audio CDs.

For most people and most audiobooks, this drop in the overall level of quality will not be perceptible, or only barely, because spoken word doesn’t need the same “resolution” as music to sound good. I’ve done listening tests in my quiet office, and while I’m sure there must be a difference, I can’t really hear it when the sound is strictly spoken voice.

But if you have really good headphones, very sensitive ears, or perhaps are hard of hearing, the drop in audio quality may be more apparent, to the point where it is irritating or grating. I have certainly heard that feedback from a small but non-trivial portion of readers. (I wish my hearing was that good!)

If you are blessed with such acute hearing, or if an audiobook has significant passages of music, audio effects, or stereo (perhaps in a book with multiple readers), you may want to import your audiobooks at a higher quality setting, and trade disk space for better sound.

The “next level up” would be to simulate Audible’s “Enhanced” format, which will require using the custom settings of the AAC Encoder, to import at 64kbps with a sample rate of 22 kHz, optimized for voice:

iTunes Preferences, Import Settings to simulate Audible Enhanced format

This will roughly double the size of your imported audiobook tracks. With my very good, noise isolating headphones I can hear the difference, and I’ve decided this is the format I prefer. I think for most people it’s overkill, and if you can’t dedicate dozens or hundreds of gigabytes of disk space to your audiobooks, don’t do it.

If even the Enhanced format isn’t good enough, you’ll need to experiment on your own. Try 96 kbps, or 128 kbps. Beyond that, and you’re almost certainly just wasting disk space. Spoken word just doesn’t have that much complexity in it.

You can also choose to go with mono or stereo, depending on the audiobook (though keep in mind that mono AAC tracks seem to be able to crash older iPods on occasion). Mono tracks will normally be half the size of stereo tracks, and only some multi-cast recordings actually provide separation that requires stereo to appreciate.

If you do decide to experiment, I would be very interested in hearing what settings you finally settle on, and some qualitative comments on the differences you hear.