Living with Chromecast Audio: A brilliantly simple audio streaming solution

Google's latest gadget brought my old speakers to life without emptying my wallet. Could it do the same for you?

Chromecast Audio
JR Raphael, IDG

I've always wanted to have my whole home connected to a smart streaming-audio system -- one that'd let me take my music from room to room and play anything I want anywhere in the house, using any phone or tablet to control it.

The problem is that I've never found a system that makes it easy and doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Sure, there's Sonos, but you're looking at quite the investment to get multiple rooms up and running with that -- $200 to $500 for each connected speaker and $350 to $500 for adapters that let you bring existing "dumb" speakers into the equation. Those numbers add up fast -- and as tempting as it is, I've never been able to convince myself (or, ahem, my wife) that it's a good idea to drop that much dough.

(Sonos also generally requires you to use the company's own Android app to control music playback, and there's no universal Web interface for playing music from a laptop's browser -- two asterisks that don't exactly sweeten the deal for me.)

Two weeks ago, I finally found the solution I'd been waiting for. Yup: I'm talking about Google's new Chromecast Audio -- a simple little $35 device that lets you turn existing speakers into smart speakers and then stream audio to them using the apps already on your phone, tablet, or computer.

I went to the nearest Ye Olde Electronics Retailer and picked up a few Chromecast Audios of my own shortly after Google's announcement last month, and I've been using 'em in my home ever since. And let me tell you: I'm pretty darn pleased with how things have turned out.

Getting started with Chromecast Audio

First things first: Chromecast Audio isn't going to be for everyone. Just like the regular Chromecast (which connects to a TV and handles video as well as audio), it plugs into existing equipment and makes it ready for Internet streaming. That means you need to have your own speakers in order for it to do you any good. Sounds obvious, I realize, but it's worth emphasizing.

Chromecast Audio will work with any powered speaker or speaker system, as long as it has a 3.5mm input, an RCA input, or an optical audio input on it. So you could use it with a stereo, a bookshelf or Bluetooth speaker, or even an old-school boombox, provided it has the right kind of jack available.

(The good folks over at Android Central put together a nice list of speakers that cost less than $35 and will work with Chromecast Audio, if you need to fill in a few gaps.)

Me? I connected two of 'em to standalone speakers I've had sitting around for ages and then moved those into our bedroom and kitchen. I connected a third to a dusty old stereo system I acquired from a relative's basement and then set up in our "dining room" (heavy emphasis on the quotes there). Our main living room stereo is hooked up to a TV that already has a regular Chromecast connected, so I'm not putting a Chromecast Audio on it for now (though that may change eventually -- more on why in a minute).

The setup couldn't be simpler: You just plug the Chromecast Audio into your speaker (or receiver, in the case of a stereo system) and then plug it into an outlet for power. The device comes with a short cable for 3.5mm connections; if you want to go the RCA or optical route, you'll need to buy your own cable for that (and it'll need to have a 3.5mm connector on one end, as that's the only kind of jack present on the Chromecast Audio device).

Once you're all hooked up, you open the Chromecast app on your phone or tablet (or download the desktop-based setup utility). The app will find your new connection and walk you through a couple quick steps to get everything up and running. We're talking a minute or two for each speaker -- really couldn't be much simpler.

Let the casting begin

And with that, you're ready to rock and/or roll. Any Android device or computer signed into your Wi-Fi network will be able to cast audio to any connected speaker or stereo; all you've gotta do is tap the cast button in a compatible app and then select where you want the audio to play. (You can also allow casting from devices not signed into your Wi-Fi network via a PIN-based guest mode, if you're so inclined.)

When I tap the cast button in Google Play Music on my phone, for instance, I see this list of options:

Chromecast Audio Google Play Music

I then just tap whichever option one I want, and ta-da: Anything I play is directed to that speaker. The audio streams directly to the Chromecast Audio device, too -- as opposed to playing on or from my phone -- so there's no real impact on my phone's battery life, nor are there any connectivity issues or playback gaps like you frequently experience when using Bluetooth connections.

If you're using an app that doesn't have native Chromecast support, you can opt to mirror all of the audio coming out of your mobile device or your computer's Web browser and cast that to a speaker instead. With all the apps that have Chromecast support these days, it's not something I've found any real need to use -- but it's nice to know the workaround exists (and seems to work quite well, too).

What's been great about Chromecast Audio for me and m'ladies (both wife and daughter -- she may not be able to operate a smartphone yet, but she sure does enjoy the music we play from them) is the simplicity of being able to easily move our music to wherever we happen to be in the house. Feeding the baby in the dining room? Open up Google Play Music, tap the cast button, tap Dining Room. Bam. Music playing.

Time to head into the kitchen to work on our dinner? Open Play Music again, tap the cast button, tap Kitchen. Bingo-bango. The tunes keep going.

You get the idea.

It's only going to get better

If that were all Chromecast Audio could do, I'd be happy. But things should get even cooler later this year, when Google is scheduled to add the ability to cast to multiple Chromecast Audio destinations simultaneously. In other words, I could tell my phone to send my "Best of Toto" playlist to both the kitchen and the dining room at the same time. Or to the living room and the bedroom. Or, you know, whatever combination seems appropriate at any given moment.

(Just kidding about having a "Best of Toto" playlist, by the way.)

(Though now I'm wondering if maybe I should work on one of those.)

(Except that it might have only one song. Maybe two. And "best" might be too strong of a word to describe that music.)

The multiroom casting feature should be huge. It'll basically turn Chromecast Audio into a build-your-own Sonos type of setup (provided, course, that you have or are able to obtain your own speakers). And that's why I might eventually pick up one more unit and throw it onto my living room stereo, as I want that to be a part of the multiroom playback menu once that feature's available -- and the regular Chromecast there now might not allow that, since it connects via HDMI and relies on active video to operate.

Even in its current form, though, this inexpensive little gadget is exactly the sort of answer I've been waiting for -- a brilliantly simple solution to a problem that's been overcomplicated for far too long (déjà vu, anyone?). The addition of multiroom playback will only be icing on the cake.

If you're like me and have extra speakers that you wish you could easily use for streaming from your various devices, I wouldn't hesitate to pick up a Chromecast Audio -- or, heck, a few of 'em -- today. 

UPDATE: Chromecast Audio revisited: 4 months with Google's simple streaming solution

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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