There are lots of answers to this question, but they may not work for your wife. The possibilities include good old-fashioned cassette tape recorders, specialised talking book readers such as the Victor Reader Stream, CD players, MP3 players, smartphones, tablets and PCs. You may need to use different technologies for different types of material.
Either way, remember that cassettes have been doing this job for decades, and there are thousands of tapes on eBay.co.uk. Prices vary, but you can often pick up cheap bundles for £1 per book, or less. CD audiobooks are not as common, but you may find some titles your wife would like.
In the future, I may have a two-word answer: Amazon Alexa. The longer version would be “a voice-recognition system with intelligent personal assistant software that can play audio on demand”. There are other AI-based PAs including Microsoft’s Cortana, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri, but Alexa is already available on the Amazon Echo, which makes it instantly available for voice commands. Google has yet to launch its copycat product, Google Home, in the UK, but it’s expected in this year’s second quarter. Alexa will also appear on Amazon’s £39.99 Fire TV Stick on 6 April.
Alexa won’t work for your wife if she has “no speech”, but voice-driven AI systems like Alexa can not only answer questions and play audio, they can operate a lot of smart gadgets. They should make life easier for people who, for whatever reason, struggle with small screens, tiny buttons and incomprehensible user interfaces. That includes me.
Text-to-speech (TTS) is a relatively old technology: Texas Instruments started making the speech synthesis chips used in its Speak & Spell toy in the 1970s. Amazon introduced text-to-speech in the Kindle 2, but it ran into objections from the Authors Guild. In a New York Times opinion piece, The Kindle Swindle?, the Guild’s president argued that ebook rights don’t include audio rights, and authors needed the extra cash.
Audible Inc was one of the pioneers of digital audiobooks, and Amazon bought that company in 2008. Unfortunately, the UK’s Amazon Prime service doesn’t include a selection of Audible audio books alongside the free movies, but there is some hope: American Prime users now get free Audible Channels, for streaming only. Either way, it might be worth subscribing to Audible, which costs £7.99 per month after a free first month. Your wife might like its BBC Collection in particular.
A book read by someone who is good at reading aloud can be a wonderful experience. A book read by text-to-speech software may be unbearable, except in small doses. TTS is fine for some purposes, such as catching up with the news, but not so good for novels. Actor and gaming celebrity Wil Wheaton has demonstrated the difference.
There’s a plethora of TTS programs, and they are built into both Microsoft Windows and MacOS. There are also TTS apps for smartphones and tablets, including Voice Dream Reader for Apple and Android.
For more details, see my earlier answer, How to convert text documents into MP3 audio files. It’s a little old (2013), but the field hasn’t changed that much, apart from the rising popularity of Voice Dream Reader.
The main things to consider are the range of inputs that a TTS converter will accept – plain texts, Word documents, PDF files, various ebook formats etc – and whether there’s a voice that your wife likes.
Consider getting your wife one of the RNIB’s Daisy-compatible audiobook players with TTS built in. For example, the new Victor Reader Stream plays Audible books while also including Acapela’s TTS software, which can voice text files and ebooks in the ePub format. Further, it can play thousands of internet radio stations via your wireless network, and there’s a 32GB SD card slot for loading other types of material.
Because it’s designed for blind and visually impaired users, your wife may be able to operate it herself. That would give your wife more control, and reduce the strain on you.