Digital Life

Hands on review: Chromecast Audio multiroom streaming

A cheap and easy way to fling music around your home, Google's Chromecast Audio adaptor gives any speaker a wireless overhaul.

At $59 for the tiny Chromecast Audio adaptor you're entitled to set your expectations low, but it's actually surprisingly good and stands up well against more expensive options like Apple's $129 Airport Express adaptors. Like Apple's gear, the Chromecast Audio offers a slick multiroom option which lets you group speakers throughout your home and play music perfectly in sync.

Whether you're into Rihanna or The Rolling Stones, Google's Chromecast Audio is a great way to stream your favourite ...
Whether you're into Rihanna or The Rolling Stones, Google's Chromecast Audio is a great way to stream your favourite music around the house. Photo: Supplied

You need to supply your own powered speakers or amp, the Chromecast Audio is simply a Wi-Fi-enabled dongle. This means you can upgrade your speakers over time, although I'd recommend using matching speakers in adjacent rooms when you're running multiroom audio to avoid a harsh transition as you walk between rooms.

Set up

The tiny Chromecast Audio comes with a 3.5mm audio cable and a micro-USB power supply.
The tiny Chromecast Audio comes with a 3.5mm audio cable and a micro-USB power supply.  

You configure the Chromecast Audio adaptors using the Chromecast app for Android or iOS, similar to setting up the Chromecast streaming video stick. The audio adaptors generate their own Wi-Fi network so you simply connect to that network, give the adaptor a name and tell it the password to your home Wi-Fi network.

Thankfully Google's audio adaptors support both 2.4 and 5GHz wireless networks, with 5GHz your best option to avoid local interference and choppy playback.

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You can't stream via Bluetooth, although the adaptor does utilise Bluetooth to provide guest access for people who aren't connected to your Wi-Fi network. They can tap on the Cast icon in a compatible music app and their device will listen out for an ultrasonic authorisation signal from the Chromecast Audio.

Streaming music

Hooked up to a decent pair of speakers, Google's Chromecast audio brings the classics to life.
Hooked up to a decent pair of speakers, Google's Chromecast audio brings the classics to life. Photo: Mark Metcalfe

Sending music to your speakers is easy. The Chromecast Audio shows up as an available speaker when you click on the dropdown Cast menu in compatible apps. It's similar to Apple's Airplay streaming music ecosystem, but these adaptors are not compatible with Airplay so you can't stream from iTunes.

Your speakers make a reassuring beep when your device connects to the adaptor, a sound which can be disabled, but you'll want to leave it on while you grow comfortable with the system because the adaptors can be very slow to connect sometimes.

You'll find support for Chromecast Audio streaming in a range of mobile apps including Google Play Music, Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn Radio, Deezer, NPR One, 7digital, Plex and others. Streaming works with Android and Apple devices, along with desktop browsers.

If you've got your eye on a Google Music Family subscription be aware that you can only set it up via an Android device – the kind of frustrating restriction you'd expect from Apple but not Google.

Sound quality

At this point you're obviously at the mercy of your speakers. I tested two Chromecast Audio adaptors, each connected to a decent set of powered 2.1-channel Harman Kardon Soundsticks II speakers. They're normally connected to Airport Express wireless adaptors installed in my lounge room and adjacent dining room.

The Chromecast Audio is powered via micro-USB using the supplied AC adaptor. There's also a combination analogue/digital audio output, so you can plug in practically any speakers which feature a 3.5mm input or else connect to the SP/DIF digital audio input on an amplifier.

If you're really fussy about sound quality you'll find that music from Chromecast Audio's analogue output sounds a tad flat and murky when compared to streaming via an Airport Express. It's only a subtle difference, to be fair it didn't bother me too much once I stopped specifically listening for it.

Initially I suspected the underwhelming sound quality was due to the Chromecast Audio featuring a cheap Digital-to-Analogue Converter (DAC), the gizmo which turns all the ones and zeros into sound. But dig around in the Chromecast app's advanced settings and you'll find a Full Dynamic Range option which is disabled by default for the analogue output. Enabling this improves the sound, but you might only notice the difference if you're using decent speakers and high-quality content.

Audiophiles will also be pleased to hear that the Chromecast Audio handles 96KHz/24-bit lossless audio playback, something Airplay and Sonos don't support. Mobile apps like 7digital let you stream 16-bit and 24-bit FLAC audio files to Chromecast Audio adaptors.

A bum note

Connected to my 5GHz network the Chromecast Audio adaptors were rock solid for a few hours, streaming from Apple and Android devices as well as Google Play Music running in the Chrome browser on my Mac. Then everything went haywire.

For no apparent reason my iPhone sputtered for 15 minutes and then surprisingly asked for the Guest PIN even though it had been happily streaming across my Wi-Fi network all morning.

At that point everything went to hell and none of my devices could connect to the adaptors. Eventually I was forced to perform factory resets on both adaptors, as well as restart my Wi-Fi network.

Even after all that, playback remained spasmodic from the Google Play Music app to one speaker which had Guest mode enabled, but not the other speaker with Guest mode disabled. Third-party apps like Plex worked fine with both speakers, the issue seemed limited to Google Play Music – odd considering that it's Google's own app.

This naturally shook my faith in Google's Chromecast Audio adaptors, even though disabling Guest mode seems to solve the problem. I still have to say they're far more reliable than Apple's Airplay, which in my home has been a flaky mess since about iOS7.

Streaming from an iPhone via Airplay, the speakers connected to my Airport Express base stations vanish off the network every few minutes. The problem doesn't seem to affect iTunes on the desktop or iGadgets runner older versions of iOS. It's not just me, the forums are filled with complaints about the issue.

The sad truth is that wireless streaming can be a dark art and your mileage may vary for a myriad of reasons which can be hard to pin down. The only truly bulletproof streaming music system I've ever tested is Sonos which generates its own private 5GHz mesh network.

As with the Chromecast video player, Google offers an optional Ethernet adaptor for times when Wi-Fi isn't up to the job. There wasn't one bundled with my review units, so I can't vouch for the Ethernet adaptor, but it's good to know this option is there if you run into trouble.

Multiroom audio

Many budget multiroom audio systems have the slightest of delays – stand in the sweet spot between two speakers and it sounds as if the band is performing in an echoey warehouse. You don't get that with Google's Chromecast Audio adaptors – the sync is just as tight as a Sonos system. Should you encounter problems, it's possible to adjust the delay for each individual speaker.

You can't create stereo pairs, nor can you mix and match groups of speakers on the fly as you do with a Sonos system or iTunes on the desktop. You need to use the Chromecast app to define a group of speakers and give it a name. That name then shows up as an available speaker in your apps, using the Cast icon's dropdown list.

This isn't a major inconvenience if you'll only ever use a few groups such as Whole House, Living Areas and Bedrooms. It is however frustrating if you want to add and remove speakers on the run.

These speaker groups are only available to mobile devices, not the desktop browser. This is the opposite of Apple's Airplay, which can only stream from an iGadget to a single speaker. Given the choice, Google's solution will suit people who tend to drive their home audio from their mobile devices rather than their computer.

Alternatively you can use different devices to send different music to different speakers or groups. You can even do this using different apps on the same device, perhaps using Plex on your phone to send The Rolling Stones to the lounge room while using Google Play Music to send Rihanna to the rumpus room.

So what's the verdict?

The Guest mode hiccup spoiled a great first impression but tat aside the Chromecast Audio is an amazing little gadget. If Airplay's flakiness is putting a dent in your household harmony, as it has in mine, then it's certainly worth trying out Google's alternative. At this point I'm expecting to rip out all of my unreliable Airport Express base stations and replace them with Chromecast Audio adaptors.

I still say Sonos is the gold standard when it comes to multiroom audio in terms of functionality, ease of use and sound quality. If you're purchasing Chromecast Audio adaptors you'll still need to spend good money on decent speakers to rival Sonos' sound quality. But if you're looking to dip your toe into wireless multiroom audio without spending a bundle, Google's Chromecast Audio will certainly be music to your ears.

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