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Chromecast Audio review: The ultimate audio streaming dongle is better than ever

The most affordable Wi-Fi audio streamer gets even better.

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Ty Pendlebury
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Ty Pendlebury

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Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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Until about a decade ago, the idea of controlling music in every room of your house generally required a costly and complicated custom installed system that would easily cost many thousands of dollars. That changed with the introduction of Sonos, which made the first big breakthrough in simplicity and cost savings. The company's Sonos Play:1 speaker -- and the idea of using a phone app as a wireless remote -- brought the buy-in cost down to just $200. 

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8.9

Chromecast Audio

The Good

Google's ultra-affordable Wi-Fi music dongle streams anything from an Android device and many top iOS apps as well. It supports multiroom audio, digital and analog outputs and -- with Google Home -- voice control.

The Bad

Some notable music services, including iTunes, Apple Music and Amazon Music, are not supported on iPhone and iPad. You need to supply the speakers.

The Bottom Line

The phenomenal Google Chromecast Audio should be your starting point if you're looking into multiroom wireless audio.

But with the release of 2015's Chromecast Audio, Google arguably took the lead in ultra-affordable multiroom Wi-Fi audio. And with the Google Home, it's added voice control to the mix as well. For just $35, £30 or AU$59 per room, the Chromecast Audio is one of the best upgrades you can make to your home's music.  

What is it?

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Chromecast Audio lets you hook up nearly any "dumb" speaker or receiver and stream audio from your phone. It streams any audio from an Android device, and it works with select apps from an iPhone or iPad. (It also can stream from Chrome browsers on Windows PCs and Macs, albeit less smoothly.)

A little larger than an Oreo cookie, the Chromecast Audio is the product of an unholy marriage between a 7-inch record and a hockey puck. The device has a hybrid 3.5mm-optical port and it comes with a very short 5-inch 3.5mm cable to connect to it the Aux input on your hi-fi system, portable speaker or any old boom box. (It also supports full optical digital connections, but you'll need to supply a separate mini-Toslink optical cable.) The only other port on the Chromecast is a Micro-USB port for connection to the included power adapter.

The Chromecast Audio effectively replaces devices such as the Sonos Connect ($350), and when combined with the $129 Google Home it becomes a voice-operated jukebox, too.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

What's so great about it?

It's really damn cheap: I can think of no other device this inexpensive that does what the Chromecast Audio does. Sure, you can buy a Bluetooth adaptor, but it will only work in one room, sound worse and cut out as soon as you leave the room with your phone. A 3.5mm cable is even cheaper, but then you're physically tethered to the speaker.

It supports all apps on Android, many on iOS: If you're an Android user, you're in heaven as the Audio will play back anything you can play on your phone or tablet. Just tap the Cast Audio/Video button in the Google Home app and that sweet Soundcloud mix tape will start coming out of your hi-fi. Apart from native support there are also plenty of Android and iOS apps with built-in Cast buttons including Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Google Play Music, YouTube Music and iHeartRadio.  

It keeps improving: In the two years since the dongle's release, the Chromecast has only gotten better, with voice control one of the latest improvements. Of all the Wi-Fi dongles we've tested under $100 this is definitely the easiest to setup. If you want to improve the audio quality you can hook it up to an external DAC or receiver, too -- though the performance is perfectly fine for budget speakers.

Multiroom: The Chromecast Audio is designed to work as part of a multiroom system supporting most file formats up to 24-bit/96kHz. While it works great with other Chromecast Audio units it will also work with Chromecast built-in products from third-party manufacturers. These include speakers, receivers, sound bars and high-end adaptors from the likes of Sony, LG, NAD, PolkRaumfeld and Onkyo. Create a group in the Google Home app incorporating the speakers you want, and even control it with your voice if you like.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Voice control is the future: Chromecast Audio may not be a special snowflake when it comes to voice control -- most competitors have announced forthcoming support for Amazon's Alexa. Google's solution is not only more tightly integrated, however, it's also available now. Using the Chromecast Audio in tandem with the Home is much more rewarding than using either on its own. Tell the Google Home to "Play The Cure on the Chromecast Audio" and it will play you a "best of" from the music service of your choice. 

What's not great?

It's not as good for iPhone and iPad users: While the situation isn't as bad as it is with Android users trying to use AirPlay, iOS users still don't get the support enjoyed by their Android brethren. Individual app developers can add Chromecast support on iOS, but that means that Google's frenemies with their own streaming solutions have little incentive to do so. Thus, Apple Music, Apple Podcasts and Amazon Music have no Chromecast support on iOS -- and almost certainly never will.

It has its limitations: While hooking the Chromecast up to a DAC or receiver helps, it can only do so much. It's only able to stream up to 24/96 which may worry some audiophiles, and I had some issues with hooking it up digitally to a Rotel receiver with unpleasantly steely sonics. Also, without a wired Ethernet option you could run up against interference problems depending on the strength of your Wi-Fi (and your neighbors').

Chrome browser support is patchy: While Chromecast is supposed to work without fuss, and usually does when casting video, I found it patchy when casting audio. I was able to cast audio from the CBS All-Access site for a few minutes and then it stopped. No amount of resets would let me get back in, despite it merrily informing me it was playing fine -- this was with a Core i7 PC (the minimum requirement is an i3). Also beware that a Chromecast won't stream from a site that uses Silverlight, Quicktime or VLC.

Should you buy it?

For Android users, the Chromecast Audio is a nearly perfect product, and the closest thing in the world to a no-brainer.

For iOS users, it's a bit more nuanced. If your audio experience isn't on a supported app, the Chromecast Audio is little more than a paperweight. But if you do use a Chromecast-compatible app, it's heaven.  

Update, July 21: This review, originally published in 2015, has since been updated to reflect firmware updates featuring multiroom, 24/96 support and voice control.

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8.9

Chromecast Audio

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Sound 7Value 10