Many smart people have tried to compare audiobooks vs reading print or ebooks. And yet, people still wonder if audiobooks are good for you and if they are even real reading!
Let’s take a look at recent research findings to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of audiobooks and how they compare to other book formats…
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Are Audiobooks as good as Reading a Print or Ebook?
As with many things, the answer to this question is: It depends on the context! Or, more specifically, on your answers to these two questions: Do you feel like you learn better by seeing or listening? And will you get quizzed on the content of the book?
Most of us read for entertainment. If there’s no test, you don’t really need to worry about audiobooks vs reading print/ebooks because you can enjoy your books in whichever form you want!
Go ahead and dive into a great love story or a compelling memoir. For this, audiobooks are just as good as consuming written words because the brain does the exact same things with the information, whether you hear it or read it from a page.
That’s because the act of reading with your eyes is just one tiny step in your brain. If you are a proficient reader, your brain quickly decodes the words. And what happens after that is the same for audiobooks and reading written text with your eyeballs!
Under the very unwieldy headline “The Representation of Semantic Information Across Human Cerebral Cortex During Listening Versus Reading Is Invariant to Stimulus Modality” researchers conducted a study in 2019 in which they used neuroimaging to see how written words and heard words are processed in the brain.
In the experiments, participants read or listened to the same stories for several hours. The researchers found that language is processed the same way by the brain, whether you listen to the audiobook or read the ebook or print book.
So, if someone in your book club complains, you can ensure them that you read the book, just like everybody else. If anyone tries to argue that audiobooks are not reading, tell them science disagrees strongly!
Related article: 5 Things you didn’t know about Audiobooks
Of course, there are personal preferences. And some people feel they can’t process an audiobook or a lecture as well as reading a book or slides. But on average, if you don’t have any strong personal preferences, you can rest assured that an audiobook is just as good a form of reading for entertainment as reading an ebook or paperback.
Comprehension of Audiobooks vs Reading Print or Ebooks
If you get quizzed on the content of your book and all forms of books are accessible to you, audiobooks are probably not your best choice though.
However, studying with an ebook on average doesn’t give better results in comprehension and retention than using an audiobook (Source)!
The problem seems to be with digital formats in general. Or rather, a physical book offers an advantage to students. Because other studies found that learning with a print book leads to better comprehension and retention than using ebooks (Source).
That means, books in digital format, be it audiobook or ebook, are not the best way to prepare for tests. Studying with a good old print book might be your first choice here.
One theory why print books work better than ebooks or audiobooks for learning is that your eyes can jump back to a previous word more easily on a paper page to ensure you fully understand a sentence.
That’s something that is simply too much of a hassle with audiobooks as you would have to do a repeat listen of more than just that one word or sentence. In ebooks, this function is often limited as well since you see less of the text on-screen than you do in an open paper book (Source).
Another theory is that print books require more focus. The fact that audiobooks are perfect for multi-tasking is generally a strength of the format, but it can become a weakness when you need to study and fully absorb, comprehend, and retain every word of your text.
Being tempted to multi-task leads to too many distractions!
But again – and this is very important – these findings only make a difference in the comparison of audiobooks vs reading print or ebooks when someone is preparing for a test!
Comprehension and retention of audiobooks are just fine and perfectly sufficient when you are reading for pleasure, want to catch up on Classics, or want to gain new knowledge from Nonfiction titles.
Immersion in Audiobooks vs Reading Print or Ebooks
In a very interesting study from 2018 by Audible and UCL, audiobooks were compared to movies. And it turns out that audiobooks are much more immersive than movies!
While participants felt like they were more captivated by the stories they watched on-screen, physiological measures actually showed that they were more immersed in the audiobooks.
There is incredible magic in hearing a story that is read to you by the perfect voice. And when you listen to a book about a culture different from yours read by a narrator of that cultural background, you even learn how to pronounce words correctly!
Also, it is quite common in Nonfiction (more so than in Fiction) that audiobooks are read by the author. This can give you a more in-depth understanding of what the author wants to say because the narration transports the author’s emotions and, literally, their voice, how they meant something. This might well be one reason why podcasts are so popular as well!
Accessibility of Audiobooks vs Reading Ebooks or Physical books
In regard to accessibility, print books are clearly the loser, even though they are still the by far bestselling format for books.
Ebook devices have made literature much more accessible for visually impaired readers who can adjust font size. Because of this ebooks are increasingly popular among elderly readers.
Audiobooks offer an even wider range of benefits for disabled readers who are not hearing impaired. They don’t require to be held up like a print book or ebook reader which makes them more comfortable for people with various kinds of physical disabilities.
Many readers with forms of brain injuries or neurological issues also appreciate that they can enjoy literature through audiobooks without having to use their eyes to read.
The price of books matters for many readers and is a deciding factor if we can get a specific book or not, and if we can read as many books as we want to or have to limit ourselves.
Generally speaking, ebooks are “the cheap option”, while print books and audiobooks are at a similar, higher price level.
Of course, it isn’t that clear-cut. Many libraries offer digital audiobooks through programs like Libby or Hoopla, so you have access to them like any other library book.
Additionally, there are many great audiobook subscriptions that offer some form of discount or even Netflix-like unlimited listening.
So, even though it might seem expensive at first glance to go for audiobooks vs reading ebooks or second-hand paperbacks, audiobooks have become very affordable. Even a standard Audible subscription includes access to a catalog with “all you can listen” titles now.
Related article: What is Audible Plus?
So, are Audiobooks Good for your Brain?
Yes, yes, indeed! For many readers, audiobooks make it possible to enjoy many more books than they would otherwise have time for. You can listen while driving, while cleaning, while resting your eyes after a day of staring at a screen, maybe even while working.
Audiobooks can help you achieve your “well-read” status. And experiencing more books is always better for your brain!
One could even go so far and argue that this versatility is why audiobooks are better than other book formats for many busy people. If audiobooks are the format that helps you read as much as you want, then they are most certainly good for you!
Generally speaking, when comparing audiobooks vs reading print or ebooks, it’s down to personal preference.
There is no clear superiority of one format over another – unless you are learning for a test. And even then, personal preference might win out.
If you plan to use a hardcover book but only open it the night before the test, you are much less prepared than had you spent weeks with the texts on your headphones. It’s always better to study more thoroughly!
And don’t forget, every good thing can be turned into a bad thing. When you read a hardcover novel until 3 AM even though you have an important appointment at 8 AM, reading is a bad thing, no matter if it’s War And Peace or a Nonfiction book on how to fight climate change.
Better listen to a relaxing audiobook that you can fall asleep to… 😉
Eline Blackman (pronouns: she/they) fell in love with books as a child – with being read to and reading herself. 10 years ago, she bought her first Audible book. It was love at first listen! An average of 250 audiobooks per year has become the new normal and you will rarely see Eline without a wireless earbud. Romance and Fantasy are the go-to genres for this audiobook fan.