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.
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.
Editors' note: This review, originally published in 2015, has since been updated to reflect firmware updates featuring multiroom and 24/96 support, as well as the ability to incorporate multiple Google Cast speakers.
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.
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.
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 thethat 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.
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.
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.