Chromecast Audio review

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

THE GOOD: Google’s budget audio dongle pipes music to any stereo from the most popular streaming apps on your phone. It’s simple and works well, with direct compatibility for most major music services, and even more are supported via the Chrome browser plug-in and on the Android app. And did we mention it only costs $35, £30 or AU$49? It’s the easiest way to enable multiroom music in your house. The ability to feed 24-bit/96kHz music to an external digital analog converter will please audiophiles.

THE BAD: Some notable music services, including iTunes, Apple Music and Amazon Music, are not supported on iPhone and iPad. In analog sound quality it’s beaten by the Fon Gramofon (which costs twice2016-11-28 03:56 PM as much). You can’t use Google Cast devices as part of a multiroom environment.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The ultra-affordable Google Chromecast Audio is one of the best music-streaming devices you can buy — especially if you’re an Android user.

In 2013, Google introduced the Chromecast , a plug-and-play dongle designed to make streaming video from a mobile device to a TV easier. In 2015, the company followed up with Chromecast Audio, which bridged audio-streaming apps to legacy audio equipment equipped with an analog or optical input.

chromecast_audio_hero-4-w782

Google’s latest audio product, the Chromecast Audio, distills everything the company has learned about content streaming into a simple, affordable device the size of a York Peppermint Patty. And Sonos, the leader in wireless, streaming whole-home audio, has reason to worry. At $35, £30 or AU$49, Chromecast Audio capably fulfills its core promises at a very affordable price, especially now that the system now (also) supports voice control.

Chromecast Audio is capable of being partnered with Google Home — the company’s new smart speaker with built-in voice assistant — as well as Google Cast speakers from other companies. You can say “OK Google, cast [song] onto [speaker name]” to play music in multiple rooms simultaneously and from multiple devices. (Check out the full list of voice commands supported by Google Home). The Chromecast Audio is part of new breed of budget wireless music adapters that are making expensive devices such as the $350 Sonos Connect obsolete. While the multiroom market is still quite volatile, with plenty of contenders vying for dominance, Google’s cheap-as-chips device has the most potential to spark a revolution. In short, the Chromecast Audio is the new wireless audio streamer to beat.

A tiny puck

The Chromecast Audio looks like the product of an unholy marriage between a 7-inch record and a peewee hockey puck. It has “grooves” on one side and is smooth on the other, evoking a vinyl record and making for better performance on the ice, respectively. The device is simply tiny, at 2 inches in diameter and half an inch thick.

The puck has just two ports and ships with a cable to plug into each. The first is a hybrid 3.5mm/optical port and it’s partnered with a 5-inch Day-Glo-yellow 3.5mm analog cable — the same width as a standard headphone cable. The only other port on the Chromecast is a Micro-USB power port, and the device ships with a compatible cable and power adapter. It can also be powered by plugging it into any powered USB port in your system. Likewise, should you want to use the optical function, you’ll need a mini-Toslink adapter or cable (not included).

You’ll set up the device using the Google Home app for iOS or Android. The main work involves giving your device a name and entering the credentials for your Wi-Fi network. Chromecast Audio supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and is compatible with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. After setup, a Chromecast Audio user’s only reason to fire up the app is to find other compatible audio apps, group speakers or use the Stream Audio function (Android only).

One of the best features of Google Cast/Chromecast is multiroom support which makes it possible to group several speakers (including Google Cast speakers) via the Chromecast app together under one name. This feature lets you combine — for example — the living room, kitchen and study together for a group called “House Party”, and that would then appear as a single device you can cast to. You could make as many such groups involving different combinations of speakers as you wanted.

flccastaudio

Be aware that while speakers with Google Cast technology exist — from LG, Sony and supposedly Denon — this is separate from Chromecast. We tested both a Sony receiver and LG Music Cast speaker, and neither speaker appeared within the Chromecast app. This means you can’t group Google Cast devices with Chromecast Audios as part of a multiroom setup, but you can still Cast to them all individually. Whether this will change in the future is anybody’s guess.

The Chromecast family

As of November 2016, Google has a next-generation video streamer, the Chromecast Ultra, which supports 4K and HDR streaming video. For $69, AU$99 or £69, Google says that the Chromecast Ultra will deliver better image quality than the current $35 Chromecast (which remains available), streaming 4K from Netflix, YouTube and Vudu at launch and from Google’s own Play TV and Movies store later this year.

Of course, to get the benefits of 4K or HDR (in either format) you’ll need a compatible TV. You’ll also need to be watching a 4K and/or HDR TV stream, which are still restricted to a just a few shows, videos and movies. Such higher-quality streams require good bandwidth — 15 megabits per second or higher for Netflix, for example — and you’ll need to subscribe to Netflix’s $12/£9/AU$15 monthly plan to get access.

google-chromecast-audio-08

Be aware that “Chromecast” is now Google’s name for its own streaming devices while “Google Cast” only applies to the technology when used by third-party devices from Sony, LG, Onkyo and so on. Both types of speakers are controlled by the Google Home app, and can be combined with the Google Home speaker. Clear as mud? Good.

Using Chromecast Audio

Google has learned from previous failed experiments like the Nexus Q amp/streamer that simplicity is king. Chromecast Audio doesn’t try to power speakers or lock you into Google’s own apps, such as Google Music. Instead, the company is working with third-party developers to add Google’s “cast” technology to their existing apps. These partnerships allow you to use Chromecast Audio to play music on your stereo straight from the Spotify app (to use just one example).

Once Chromecast Audio is set up, using the device is easy. Open up the audio app you normally use to listen to music — again, sticking with Spotify — and tap the little “cast” icon, which looks like a TV with a Wi-Fi signal on the lower left. Up pops a menu showing a list of devices you can stream to, including the Chromecast Audio you just set up. Select it and you’ll hear a little series of beeps to let you know a stream is incoming, followed by your music — which should sound a lot better coming from your home audio speakers than from the tiny speaker on your phone.

google-chromecast-audio-macht-alte-stereo-anlagen-smart-chromecast-audio-das-658x370-f4f6347a053245ac

With the app you can also stream the same music to more than one Chromecast Audio in your home simultaneously. To do that you click the little Settings icon on any speaker and press “Group Speaker.” Add as many Audios as want and then name it anything you like. When you fire up a Chromecast-compatible app it will now recognize that group as a single speaker you can cast to. Multiroom made easy!

Music apps that work (and some that don’t)

Think of the popular services you’d want to stream over your stereo, and the Chromecast Audio can do most of them. Using an Android phone, we tested Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, Google Play Music, DS Audio (which streams home music collections from Synology servers), NPR One, Rocket Player and TuneIn, and all worked fine. Google says that Deezer, Plex and Rhapsody are also supported, but we didn’t try those. Check out Google’s full list here.

google-chromecast-audio-07

Note that there are at least two big names missing from that list. The apps for Apple Music and Amazon Music don’t currently support Chromecast Audio. There is a workaround for the latter, two in fact: the Chrome browser (on Windows and Mac machines) and the Chromecast app on Android.

On a Chrome browser, just download the Google Chromecast extension, which allows you to cast audio from any Web source at the touch of a button. We tried it with Tidal, SoundCloud and YouTube, and it worked perfectly fine.

Alternately, Android users can opt to send the audio playing on any app on their phone or tablet to the Chromecast Audio by hitting a button in the Chromecast setup app. That works well, too. Unfortunately, there’s no such option in the iOS app, and according to Google, it can’t be added within the confines of the iOS development rules.

Apple’s solution, of course, would be for Google to license its AirPlay technology, which is essentially the iOS version of “casting” — but we’re guessing the cost of doing so would be prohibitive on a device as cheap as the Chromecast Audio. Long story short: iPhone and iPad users who want to get the most out of their music in those unsupported apps should probably choose an audio streamer that makes use of Bluetooth or AirPlay instead.

While streaming from the cloud is the main reason to buy this device, there are plenty of apps that play back music files stored on your phone or on a network attached storage device (NAS). These applications ostensibly include Bubble UPnP, Toaster Cast and DoubleTwist, but we actually had trouble using them.

While BubbleUPnP isn’t the most friendly of apps, it uses nested menus upon nested menu, it is currently the most powerful Android music player available. It lets you choose the source — whether it be the phone itself, a NAS, or even Tidal (with a subscription) — and then cast it to any compatible device, including your phone.

l_10137628_003

In service of these kinds of apps, Chromecast Audio offers support for ACC, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WAV (LPCM) and FLAC. The device supports up to 24-bit/96-kHz decoding, which is great for users who have large collections of high-res files.

Also worth noting is that the Chromecast app comes with a high dynamic range setting for each device that by default is set to off. Unless you have a really small Bluetooth speaker you should probably enable this setting to avoid extra dynamic compression.

The competition

While building inexpensive Wi-Fi dongles has been tried before — most notably by companies such as Rocki and Fon — no one has been able to offer a sophisticated feature set at such a low price before now.

The dongle faces off against competition from several other quarters, and the most obvious competitor in terms of price is Bluetooth. We have recommended Belkin Bluetoothdongles in the past, and the company’s newest model costs about $40/£25/AU$55. While an adapter like this will play anything on your phone, it has the typical Bluetooth issues such as relatively short range, compressed audio quality and interruptions from phone calls.

chromecast_audio_black

In terms of Wi-Fi streaming, Fon’s Gramofon ($70) is the most serious threat to Google’s Chromecast Audio. Fon partnered with Qualcomm to provide not only Spotify streaming but alsoAllPlay connectivity, which brings Sonos-like functionality. This device is also capable of rebroadcasting your Wi-Fi signal to reach the more weakly covered nooks and crannies of your home. The biggest hitch? It costs twice as much as the Google dongle.

Of course, it’s worth noting that many audio products — from AV receivers to clock radios — now have Bluetooth, Google Cast, Wi-Fi, AirPlay or Spotify Connect built into them, too. So just make sure to check the capabilities of your audio system first — there’s no need to pay for a Chromecast Audio if it’s redundant for you.

Performance

While we had reserved expectations for a device that costs less than a dinner for two, sound quality via the analog output was very good. The Chromecast Audio was able to extract most of the details of “Pale Green Things” by the Mountain Goats with a generous sense of space. However, the Chromecast Audio did sound a little less vivid in the details it painted compared with the more expensive Gramofon; the acoustic guitar and John Darnielle’s voice had extra bite and poignancy via the Gramofon. When both devices were confronted with The Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979,” again the Gramofon was able to do a better job, with fuller bass, while the cymbals had less of a nasty edge.

Of course, this difference goes away once you connect the Chromecast Audio to an external DAC, and we had great results with both the Oppo BDP 105 and the Arcam irDac. I discovered that music encoded in 24/96 was faithfully transferred from my phone to the DAC in full quality. If you’re serious about your music, you’ll find that even connecting it via optical to a receiver will improve the sound quality significantly.

If you have an app that doesn’t support Chromecast yet, but you have an Android phone, then you are in luck. You can just press the “hamburger button” or menu and choose Cast Screen/Audio. We used it to stream music from a local PC using the Bubble UPnP app. Note that, as above, this isn’t supported on an iOS device.

Casting via the Chrome browser (with the Chromecast plug-in) works well, and we were able to stream Tidal and Amazon Music this way. Still, be aware that non-browser applications like iTunes won’t work.

Lastly, we were curious how Chromecast Audio fared against a high-end Bluetooth dongle, and so we swapped the Gramofon out for the Arcam MiniBlink ($149), which is of a similar size and includes a dedicated Burr Brown PCM5102 chipset. Using Augie March’s creepy anthem “Becoming Bryn” as a yardstick, the Arcam adapter sounded fine in isolation with plenty of bass energy to kick the tune along. But when compared with the Chromecast Audio, the Arcam’s imaging was smeared and Glenn Richards’ voice lacked the raspiness captured by the Google Wi-Fi device.

Apart from sound quality, the Chromecast’s biggest advantage over Bluetooth is multiroom music, and after grouping two speakers together in the Chromecast app we were able to stream Pandora and other sources in our “party mode” without any appreciable latency.

Conclusion

At only $35, £30 or AU$49, there is nothing that can currently touch the Chromecast for functionality, and it is even more of a no-brainer for music fans than the original Chromecast was for streaming-video lovers.

There’s still little here not to like — especially for Android users. If you are stuck with 20th-century hi-fi equipment, the Google Chromecast is one of the cheapest ways to drag it into the current millennium. The days of paying ten times more than you should for a wireless adapter are definitely numbered.

(cnet.com, https://goo.gl/4qaSWu)

Comments

comments

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn