Google's original Chromecast was a very bright idea: a device that looked like it was streaming TV from your phone, but was actually playing it directly from the internet.
Cheap, simple and devastatingly effective, it cleared the field of clumsier streaming methods and put Netflix on an extra 20 million TVs. And now, Chromecast Audio has arrived to do the same to your hi-fi.
the stream is connec-ted
Setting the Audio up requires the Chromecast app, and the whole process takes a minute or so. For any even remotely decent speakers go straight into the Chromecast app and check the 'High Dynamic Range' box, which dramatically increases the sound quality.
You can also allow Guest Mode, which means people can play their music on your Chromecast Audio without needing to join your Wi-Fi network. Mercifully, it's easy to turn off Guest Mode once you decide that your guests have heard enough Kylie and they need to get back to listening to Tool's Lateralus all the way through again.
apps full of hello
There are lots of apps that work with Chromecast Audio, including 7Digital, Deezer and TuneIn Radio, but Spotify is first on stage. There's no Cast button, but there's a 'Devices Available' thing down at the bottom of its app, which will look familiar to anyone who's used Apple's AirPlay tech with Spotify before. Up pops the Audio, and we're away. In Google Play Music there's a proper Cast button, making casting your music a tiny bit faster and easier.
You can also stream audio from a Chrome browser tab, which is handy if you use the Spotify web player or listen to Soundcloud or Last.fm in a browser window, or if - like a large proportion of the population - you use YouTube as a free, slightly dodgy music streaming service. Casting a tab is, if anything, even quicker and more simple than using an app, although the sound quality will vary depending on what platform you use.
The only major omission is Apple Music, which is about as likely to add a Cast button as Morrissey is to start doing McDonald's adverts.
Making the most of the humble MP3
This is definitely superior to streaming via Bluetooth. It's not interrupted by calls, the battery drain is noticeably lower, and the phone you're playing from doesn't have to be near the speaker. Unlike Bluetooth, it's possible to wander off into a different room without the audio stuttering or cutting out. And unlike streaming via DLNA, you don't have to give up your phone's Wi-Fi connection.
As for sound quality, the Audio streams at the highest bitrate the app will allow, so if you have Spotify streaming set to 'auto' and a half-decent broadband connection, it'll stream at 320kbps. There are certainly higher bitrates and lossless files to be had elsewhere, but for the outlay of time and money, Spotify's MP3s more than do the job.
ranged-waves, here we come
One of the big selling points for Google's new Chromecast is its improved Wi-Fi performance, and the Audio certainly produces a solid performance in the furthest reaches of the fairly thick-walled Victorian building that we've been testing it in.
It won't perform miracles, though - if there's a part of your house where Wi-Fi doesn't reach your phone, it's unlikely the Chromecast Audio will do any better.
Google Chromecast Audio Verdict
While the TV-based Chromecast seems happy to run off any old USB port, I've run into problems with the Chromecast Audio when trying to run it from a 5V USB port on the back of a hi-fi amp (one that has successfuly powered other Wi-Fi DACs), with regular failures in the connection. Having to find a proper mains socket reduces the convenience a tiny bit, but it would be a bit churlish to mark the Audio down for only working with its supplied adapter.
We'd also like to see multiroom capability, which Google says will arrive soon via an update.
Still, as with the previous Chromecast, this is an incredibly nifty little device that makes it loads easier to stream music to anything with a speaker, and for an extremely affordable price.