Updated, December 22, 2015: The review has been updated with testing of the latest firmware which includes multiroom and 24/96 support. The score has increased from 8.2 to 8.9 as a result.
Updated, March 1, 2016: We have confirmed Google Cast speakers cannot be grouped with Chromecast Audio devices for use in a multiroom environment.
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.
The Chromecast Audio is part of new breed of inexpensive wireless music adapters that are replacing the need for expensive devices such as the sound bar, powered speaker or AV receiver -- and enables it to play music around your house from most of the popular services like Pandora and Spotify. It's available in 17 countries, and international pricing includes £30 in the UK and AU$49 in Australia.. For one-tenth the price in the US, the Chromecast Audio plugs into your existing gear -- be it "dumb" stereo,
The best part, aside from the price? It's all controlled from your phone.
Since theis available for the same price and supports numerous audio apps as well, it may present its audio-only brother's strongest competition. But that video model, updated for 2015, still requires a device with an HDMI port -- meaning you need to turn on your TV to listen to music. The Chromecast Audio is more specialized, and works with the wide range of audio systems that lack HDMI. Basically, if you have any old boom box or stereo with an "aux in" port, it'll work with the Chromecast Audio.
Of all the similar audio-only devices we've tested under $100, Google's is definitely the easiest to set up. Not every app is supported right now, but more are coming soon. Sonic performance is much better than that of Bluetooth devices, and it sounds great paired with both budget systems and, with the provision of an optical output, even high-end hi-fis. In short, the Chromecast Audio is the new audio wireless 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 into any powered USB port in your system. Likewise, should you want to use the optical function you'll need a mini-Toslink adaptor or cable (not included).
You'll set up the device using the Chromecast 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.
The same app is used for both the new Chromecast and Chromecast Audio, although it certainly seems designed more for the former. The app has a search bar but it's only used for Movies and TV at the moment. 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).
At the launch of the new Chromecast line Google promised multiroom support, and with a December update has now made this available. This feature makes it possible to group several speakers (and potentially Chromecast Video and Google Cast speakers) via the Chromecast app together under one name. This lets you combine -- for example -- the living room, kitchen and study together for a group called "House Party" that would then appear as a single device you can cast to. You could make as many such groups involving different 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.
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 don't work)
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.