Together with a new version of its popular Chromecast streaming dongle, Google also announced a new device dubbed Chromecast Audio Tuesday that aims to do for streaming audio what Chromecast did for video. Selling for just $35, this new adapter is easily a game changer that could turn in-home music streaming mainstream.
That’s because the new Chromecast Audio is giving consumers an option to go beyond Bluetooth and all of its shortcomings without having to ditch their existing speakers, and without having to invest an arm and a leg into multi-room audio solutions.
The device also signals a new dedication at Google to finally solve streaming music in the home, and take a leadership in the market. “Audio is just as important as video, just as important as games,” said Google’s vice president of product management Rishi Chandra during a recent interview.
How it works and how it looks like
Chromecast Audio looks almost exactly like the second-generation Chromecast TV dongle: A small black round disc about the size of a peanut butter jar lid, with the iconic Chrome symbol in the middle. Surrounding the symbol are small grooves, reminiscent of a vinyl record.
There are two ports on the side, one to connect a USB power adapter, and one to plug in a 3.5mm stereo audio cable, which is then used to connect the device to any kind of stereo system or speaker with audio in. The port also doubles as optical out for consumers who’d like to keep the signal all digital. And finally, there’s a small reset button — but no play, pause, volume or any other controls. All of that is being delegated to a consumer’s mobile device.
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And on a mobile phone, Chromecast Audio works just like the existing Chromecast TV streaming stick. Consumers can select music, radio streams or podcasts with their favorite app, and then just press the cast button within the app to switch the music output from their phone to a speaker connected to a Chromecast Audio dongle.
But unlike with Bluetooth, the signal isn’t actually transmitted locally. Instead, Chromecast Audio gets a command to request it directly from Pandora’s, SoundCloud’s or NPR’s servers. The advantage: A user can now close the app on their phone and do other things — including making a phone call.
There are already over 100 audio apps that support casting, including most major music services. And Spotify, a long-time holdout, joined their ranks Tuesday just in time for the announcement. But consumers can also redirect any other audio signal from their Android phone or Chrome web browser to Chromecast Audio to bring even more content to their loudspeakers.
And some time in the near future, Google is going to update Chromecast Audio with multi-room capabilities. This means that consumers will be able to play the same music on two or more stereo systems equipped with a Chromecast Audio dongle in a synchronized fashion to fill their whole house with music.
At long last, Google finally gets audio right
This isn’t the first time that Google has tried to build a living room product focused on music and other forms of audio. Back in 2012, the company announced a streaming device dubbed the Nexus Q. Shaped like a cannon ball, priced at $300, and with support from none of the major music services except Google’s own, Nexus Q was a bit of an oddity, and universally panned by critics — which is why the company discontinued the Q before it even went on sale.
Lost in the failure of the Nexus Q was the fact that the device pioneered a new interaction model, turning the phone into a remote control for cloud-based media services. Google went back to the drawing board to refine this concept, and eventually incorporated it into the Chromecast TV dongle, which ended up being a huge success for the company. Google announced Tuesday that it has sold more than 20 million Chromecast units since introducing the device in 2013.
With Chromecast Audio, Google now wants to repeat that same success story in the living room — and the timing couldn’t be better. Around 50 percent of all music listening happens in the home, and music consumption is rapidly shifting from physical CDs and digital downloads to online services. Spotify now has 75 million monthly active users, Pandora reaches close to 80 million listeners every month.
A fractured landscape of competing formats
But while music services have become a hit on mobile devices, there’s still a huge void in the living room. The only company to make a significant dent in this space has been connected speaker maker Sonos, which is expected to generate a billion dollar in revenue this fiscal year. Others have tried to compete with Sonos, and largely failed. Apple even killed its own efforts to build a Wifi-connected audio speaker system after inheriting it with the Beats purchase.
Some of this can be attributed to confusion around competing standards in the space. There is Qualcomm’s Allplay technology, which is being used by speakers made by Monster, Hitachi and Panasonic. Then there’s PlayFi, the multiroom audio technology developed by sound specialist DTS, which is being used by Polk. And then there are competing products from Bose, Pure and others.
Consumers largely have to stick to one brand, because different speakers won’t work with each other. They have to check if the music services of their choice are already available on that brand’s speakers, and they have to trust the company to stick to the platform for years to come. Add the premium price tag many Wifi speakers carry these days, and you’ll have many people turn to Bluetooth instead, or simply stick with their headphones.
A perfect storm for multi-room audio
Google initially tried to work within these constraints, and launched a feature called Google Cast for Audio earlier this year. Speakers from LG, Denon and Sony equipped with cast for Audio essentially work just like Chromecast Audio. However, at least initially, those companies all developed their own, competing multi-room audio technologies, meaning that a cast-capable speaker from LG wouldn’t work with a cast-enabled speaker from Denon.
That is going to change soon. Chandra said that some time early next year, consumers will also be able to combine Chromecast Audio-equipped stereo systems and cast-enabled speakers from LG, Sony and Denon to the same multi-room mix. “We don’t believe one device can rule them all,” said Chandra, which is why the company is adding cross-platform support.
That’s a big deal. Essentially, the company is combining existing speakers in people’s homes and new, Wifi-enabled speakers from major consumer electronics manufacturers to one single platform — a platform that already has support from plenty of services, and acceptance from millions of consumers used to casting content to their TVs. It’s the perfect storm for multiroom audio.
Does that make Chromecast Audio a Sonos killer? Probably not. Sonos has done really well building high-quality speakers, and will likely continue to find customers for them. But Google’s efforts could reach millions of additional consumers, and in turn give a huge boost to streaming services, much in the same way streaming devices have helped Netflix become the juggernaut it is today.