I’ve written before how a Chromecast is a great and inexpensive way to bring internet radio into your living room, or anywhere you have a television. Now, Google is taking streaming audio one step further with the release today of Chromecast Audio.
Like the original video Chromecast, the Chromecast Audio receives content you send from your mobile device or computer, but the new one is specifically designed to connect and play over a stereo system or powered speakers. It also does it for a very low price: $35.
On the surface this may seem a lot like Bluetooth, except there are a couple of differences that may be significant.
Significantly for those who care about sound quality, the Chromecast Audio works over wi-fi, which means that audio isn’t recompressed like it is over Bluetooth. Also, according to its specs, it supports high resolution uncompressed audio up to 24 bits at 96 KHz, much higher than the CD standard of 16 bits at 44.1 KHz. This is higher than Apple’s AirPlay, which permits streaming to an Apple TV, AirPort Express or other compatible device, but only at CD quality.
Chromecast Audio also has an optical digital output, which lets you connect it to a compatible receiver, powered speaker or headphone amp, potentially delivering even better sound than the device’s analog outputs.
Additionally, when using compatible apps with a regular Chromecast you actually don’t stream the audio from your device, so much as hand off the stream to the Chromecast. That means you can do other things on your device, including listen to a different audio app. It’s not entirely clear if the the Chromecast Audio will operate this way, but it sure would be cool if it did. Then you wouldn’t be quite so tethered to your device, letting the music play on even if your phone runs out of juice or crashes.
Up to now one of the biggest limitations for many people for using the Chromecast for music was the lack of support for Spotify. That ends today, with the announcement that Spotify will support both the video Chromecast and the Chromecast Audio. Of course, Chromecast is already supported by Google’s own Play Music, as well as other services like Rdio, Pandora and Songza.
Now, the Chromecast Audio sure starts to sound a lot like the Sonos system (which I’ll be writing more about tomorrow), especially the Connect audio component which adds the Sonos system to any stereo system. Only the Chromecast costs about $300 less. So if all you want to do is send high quality audio from your phone to an existing stereo, the Chromecast Audio looks like a pretty good buy.
However, one of the things that I like about Sonos is that it’s actually independent of all your devices. While the desktop and mobile app control a Sonos speaker or Connect, the Sonos system isn’t dependent on the app. You can use any computer or smartphone running the Sonos app to control any Sonos device at any time, no matter which one you used to start up a stream. You can even start and stop, and control volume right on the Sonos device, and the app itself is pretty powerful and intuitive (again, more tomorrow about that). Plus when you factor in the cost of good powered speakers to use with the Chromecast, the price disparity narrows quite a bit.
That isn’t to say that I’m not a little bit excited about the Chromecast Audio and anxious to try one out myself, especially since the cost is so low. It seems like a no-brainer for anyone who has a decent stereo or nice powered speakers and wants to easily connect her smartphone wirelessly, and with higher fidelity than Bluetooth.
Right now the Chromecast Audio is only available directly from Google, and it comes with a free 90 day subscription to Google Play All Access, for commercial-free on-demand streaming.