Google's Chromecast, launched in 2014, grasped home cinema by the lapels and shook it firmly. The convoluted path to a connected TV experience was firmly diverted into modern streaming ease and at a price that was almost rude.
Jump forward to the present day and there's a new kid on the block: Chromecast Audio. The new device from Google - which, as its name suggests, is all about streaming audio from your online services via Wi-Fi to otherwise offline speakers - looks to bring the simplicity we loved from Chromecast and breathe new life into those until-now disconnected speakers.
Chromecast Audio review: Design goes vinyl
Chromecast Audio comes with a design that matches the second-generation TV Chromecast. It's round, measuring 51.9mm in diameter and 13.5mm thick. Yes, it's a black disc, meaning that the Chrome logo sits neatly in the centre, surrounded with vinyl-like grooves. It's a fun play on modern meet old skool.
There's a Micro-USB socket for power and a 3.5mm socket for your audio output. You'll need to either plug the supplied power pack into the wall, or connect the lead to a USB port somewhere.
There is a single button on Chromecast Audio that will power it off to restart, although if there's a problem you'll probably just pull out the cable instead. The provided 3.5mm cable is a bright yellow and measures 146mm long, making for a tidy connection to another speaker input without the need for excess cable lying around.
Chromecast Audio review: Connectivity
Chromecast Audio's raison d'être is to deliver connectivity. It's the bridge between physical speakers and your music online, just as its TV cousin bridges the gap between TV and your services online.
The Audio's 3.5mm connection is how to hook-up to an existing speaker. That might be using the included cable, but it also supports an optical connection - although you'll have to supply your own cable for that. If you want to hook-up to an existing AV receiver or soundbar then the optical connector might be the more natural option.
On the wireless side Chromecast Audio offers 802.11ac (2.4/5GHz) Wi-Fi, which is a lot faster than some of the lesser Wi-Fi connection types. That ensures the best possible buffer for streaming when connecting to your router wirelessly.
Chromecast Audio review: Setup
Setting up Chromecast Audio is very simple. All you have to do is plug the respective parts in and switch your existing audio device to the input you've plugged Chromecast into.
Then, using the new and much-improved Chromecast app, you'll be guided through the setup process. This finds your Chromecast Audio and pairs it with your Wi-Fi network, taking a couple of minutes. That's it - then you're ready to stream new music to your old speakers (and more on service compatibility in a moment).
The app really isn't necessary needed beyond the setup process, because compatible devices and apps will automatically detect that you have a Chromecast Audio available on your network - so you can cast from the app you're in.
High Dynamic Range is one app-based option that's automatically on when connecting via optical, to give the highest (or loudest) quality output when you link to Hi-Fi equipment. For those using RCA or 3.5mm cable, you'll have the option to turn this on. However, if your speaker isn't designed to accept it you'll hear a volume boost which might cause a distortion.
Chromecast Audio review: Open platform
One of the advantages that Chromecast Audio offers is that it uses an open platform - Google Cast - so supports iOS, Android, Mac OS and Windows. As long as the provider of the online source of the music has enabled support, you'll be able to easily stream music directly to Chromecast Audio.
One thing that's important to understand about this casting standard is that it doesn't require the control device (usually your phone) to supply the stream. Instead, you are simply using the phone to tell Spotify (for example) to play on your Chromecast Audio device directly - a bit like a remote controller.
The Chromecast Audio establishes and manages the stream, leaving your phone free to do whatever else - take calls, play games, leave the room - without the streaming music being disturbed, which is a distinct advantage over Bluetooth. In fact, you can leave the house, and Chromecast Audio will just keep playing that playlist you selected.
Chromecast Audio review: Spotify everywhere
Chromecast Audio supports a number of services. Many were supported by existing first-gen Chromecast devices, meaning you could play Google Music through your TV. That still applies, but there's a new player on the block: Spotify.
That's a huge step forward both for the Chromecast system and for Spotify. Spotify is one of the most popular subscription services and we've seen a number of approaches to adding Spotify connectivity to your existing speakers in the past - like the Gramofon - as well as through dedicated speakers and systems supporting the Spotify Connect standard (LG Music Flow, Denon Heos, etc).
Using Spotify with Chromecast Audio is the same as using Spotify Connect; through the Spotify app you can select the device you want to play through. The advantage that Chromecast Audio brings is that doesn't now have to be a new-fangled modern speaker - it can be your old kitchen radio, your aging stacked Hi-Fi system, or that 80s boombox. You also get all the normal benefits of Spotify on your smartphone, like lockscreen album art.
When using your phone, you can also change the output level of Chromecast Audio, so you can turn the volume up and down remotely too, which we really like.
Because of the way that Spotify works, you'll get control of Spotify playback from other devices, such as a PC. However, at the time of writing, Spotify will only cast to the new-gen Chromecast devices, not the older model - although a software update is expected soon to change that.
Chromecast Audio review: Supported services
Spotify isn't the only source of music, of course, and there are many other subscription and free services that you'll also be able to use. Google Music, naturally, is one of these. Google Music offers a subscription streaming service, as well as being an online storage solution for all your digital music.
If you're planning to cast your music, then using Google Music offers a number of advantages. If you have digital music stored locally on a computer or network drive, then handing it over to Google for management in the cloud means you can then stream it through Chromecast Audio easily, whether you decide to subscribe to a streaming service or not.
If you're after radio channels then TuneIn supports Chromecast. That gets around another annoyance of adapting your old speakers: instead of switching back to your DAB or FM tuner, you can just tell Chromecast Audio to play TuneIn radio instead. Remember that all this is using internet data and you should be mindful of any cap you might have in place.
There's also support for Deezer, Pandora, NPR One, Rdio, 7digital and more. The great thing about the way Chromecast operates is that you control these services through the native apps, so everything works as you expect.
Chromecast Audio review: Mirroring
Chromecast Audio also supports audio mirroring. This works in the same way as casting your screen to Chromecast, using the option in the drop-down menu in Android. This will present your Chromecast Audio as an option and send the audio to that device. This means, for example, that you can play games with bigger sound. You'll also be able to send audio from browser tabs to Chromecast Audio, again widening the range of options that it offers.
Chromecast Audio review: Performance
Chromecast is about convenience. It's about getting the content you want to the device you want. Google points out that using Wi-Fi means you can receive higher quality streams than if you pulled it into your phone and used Bluetooth, although there's no published figures of the quality it offers.
But in reality, the thing that is important about Chromecast is reliability. There's nothing worse than having breaks in music when streaming. We've found Chromecast Audio delivers break-free music all day. That means it delivers on its promise. It's simple, it works and it only costs £30.
There are advancements to come in the future too via software update. Chromecast Audio will get smarter, supporting multiple speakers at the same time so you can set-up a multiroom system, making it an even more desirable disc to own.
We weren't sure that Chromecast Audio would offer enough to be worthwhile. But having setup this dinky device, we're using it every day. It's affordable enough to buy without really thinking about, simple to setup and use, and supports a range of different services - including Spotify, which will be a huge plus point for many. There's very little to complain about.
For those with an existing Chromecast for TV - plugged in via HDMI, and connected to a living room surround-sound system, for example - you'll find the Audio duplicates the same audio capabilities (via a software update for the 2014 model). In the case of the Audio, however, you have that 3.5mm output option instead.
Chromecast thrives on its simplicity and Chromecast Audio is a very welcome addition. It's the perfect device to breathe connectivity into your existing disconnected speakers, bringing the convenience of modern streaming services with smartphone controls, without any unnecessary complications.