Chromecast Audio review: The perfect music streamer now includes multi-room support
I’ve been a huge fan of Google’s Chromecast video streamer ever since its launch in the UK, and I’d use it more often, but it’s never been the best solution for audio. The need to have a screen on at all times is an issue, and the lack of support from some big name apps – notably Spotify – has held its usefulness in check.
The new Chromecast Audio dongle, however, released alongside the Chromecast 2 at Google’s autumn event, addresses both these issues in one fell swoop, allowing you to use Google’s effective and efficient Cast system to stream music directly to speakers and audio systems. And the cherry on top is – at last – official Spotify support across both iOS and Android devices.
Google Chromecast Audio: Design and connectivity
Just like the Chromecast 2, the Chromecast Audio is an unassuming plastic puck, measuring 52mm in diameter, and weighing next to nothing. It’s identical to the full-blown Chromecast 2 in size and shape, but with a grooved design on the top designed to make it look a little like a miniature vinyl record.
As with the standard Chromecast 2, the Audio is powered via micro-USB, and there’s a power supply and cable supplied in the box. The key difference between them is that the Chromecast Audio replaces the HDMI output with a 3.5mm jack, allowing you to connect it directly to active speakers, or via an amplifier to your passive speakers by employing a 3.5mmn to RCA converter cable.
This is not solely an analogue output, however: the 3.5mm jack can also output an optical signal, allowing it to cater for those who have already invested in a good quality DAC or home theatre receiver. This is excellent news.
Google Chromecast Audio: Using Chromecast Audio
The Chromecast Audio is a pretty little thing, but it isn’t designed to be admired – its job is to connect your phone, tablet or laptop, to your speakers with no wires, and it pulls that job off effortlessly.
Setting it up is a doddle. Point any browser at the Chromecast setup URL, download the app, and you’ll be walked through this, step by step. The most demanding part of the whole process is entering your Wi-Fi network credentials. After this, you’re returned to the main screen of the Chromecast app (available on both iOS and Android platforms), and you’ll be able to stream audio from any Cast compatible app directly to your speakers – no screen required.
As with the standard Chromecast, the dongle doesn’t stream music from your phone, but directly from the associated music service, while your device is employed primarily as a control surface and browsing interface. This ensures quality is maximised, and that battery life doesn’t suffer. It works beautifully with Spotify at present, and BBC iPlayer Radio now works as well.
Even when you want to cast from an app that doesn’t come with native, there is a workaround: on Android devices, you can stream the audio from any app, video player or website by mirroring the sound from your device. The downside is that quality may suffer, since the audio must be re-encoded before it’s sent across from your phone, then decoded again by the Chromecast Audio before it’s piped through to your speakers.
With the multi-room facility now plumbed in via an automatic update – this lets you group Chromecast Audio devices together so you can play the same song in many rooms at once – Google’s device is the perfect party streamer as well, especially now the price has dropped to a ludicrously tempting £25.
Google Chromecast Audio: Quality and performance
Google doesn’t specify which DAC the Chromecast Audio uses, but sound quality is pretty decent. I connected a pair of Grado SR325i open-back headphones to the 3.5mm jack and found the audio warm, with solid bass, an open mid-range and detailed treble.
There’s also now support for high-resolution audio thanks to a recent firmware update, but you’ll likely not be able to hear the difference unless you hook it up to a super-expensive audiophile hi-fi system via the optical connection – and that really misses the point of the Chromecast Audio.
Still, everything I threw at it, it coped with beautifully, from Mozart’s Requiem through Aphex Twin’s Drukqs and Go Go Penguin’s effervescent jazz electronica. Some might find the reproduction a little too warm, preferring a less forgiving, more detailed soundscape, but for the money you can’t ask for much better than this.
And I found Wi-Fi performance to be good as well. Just like the standard Chromecast 2, the Chromecast Audio supports dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and sports Google’s adaptive triple antenna array. I tested it in a particularly tricky spot in my house where laptops and phones often struggle for Wi-Fi connectivity, and found I had no problem connecting at all with the Chromecast Audio. Big tick.
Google Chromecast Audio: Verdict
If all you care about is streaming audio to your hi-fi system, there are many products offering what the Chromecast 2 does, not least the excellent Gramofon, which I reviewed earlier this year. Few, however, achieve the feat with the elegance and flexibility of the Chromecast Audio, and at such a low price.
Now that the multi-room facility has been added, alongside high-resolution audio support, and the price cut to a ridiculously cheap £25, it’s the perfect music streaming device. You’d be mad not to buy one.