Got the Bluetooth blues? Google’s Chromecast Audio (GCA) is not much bigger than a Checker’s piece but brings streaming service integration to any device with an analogue input, all for just US$35.
Hook-up is as simple as 1-2-3: connect the GCA to an amplifier or pair of powered loudspeakers (a 3.5mm-to-3.5mm fly lead is supplied); join the GCA’s microUSB port to the mains with the supplied SMPS; download the Google Cast app to an iPhone or tablet and run the one-time setup procedure that joins the GCA to your wireless network (there’s no Ethernet here).
The final piece of the puzzle comes from the streaming app itself, which must be Google Cast enabled. At product launch, Cast-supported apps included Spotify, Google Play Music, YouTube and Pandora. Lossy services all. Wot no Tidal? (no Qobuz, no Deezer either).
With the GCA dongle tucked away out of sight, any Cast-compatible app’s audio stream can be handed off to the GCA leaving the phone or tablet to function as a glorified remote control.
Were it not for the GCA’s 3.5mm socket doubling as a mini-TOSLINK output, audiophiles like me (and you) might have let Google’s new device drift through to the ‘keeper.
This week’s update to the Tidal iOS/Android app adds Google Cast support and thus provides a timely opportunity for a more in-depth look.
I’ve been giving the GCA a run around the block with a selection of Tidal Hifi’s lossless streams from Prince, Objekt and Aphex Twin. How would the first “CD quality” streaming service to land on Google’s super affordable hardware platform fare as an audio source?
As one might expect, the internal DAC isn’t much to write home about. Tapping the 3.5mm socket’s analogue output with the Mytek Brooklyn DAC’s analogue input via an AudioQuest Golden Gate 3.5mm-RCA cable revealed a somewhat lacklustre handling of microdynamics and a porridge-smeared window on the music. I’m dramatising a little with the breakfast cereal analogy but consider this: the iPhone 6S Plus’ headphone socket sounds better.
The bad news doesn’t end there. As a digital deliverer the GCA is also quite weak. Despite the electrical isolation of a TOSLINK connection, the Google puck serves up more treble glare than an unmodified Sonos Connect. Playing catch on an Airplay stream, the 3rd Generation Apple TV sounds better.
The upshot? A S/PDIF re-clocker is required to take the GCA’s digital output up to – and beyond – an acceptable level of audible quality. The GCA as bit provider is markedly improved by the Wyred4Sound Remedy interceding between it and the Mytek Brooklyn DAC‘s digital inputs. However, dropping several hundred bucks to elevate the performance of a US$35 device makes little financial sense.
What do to? A richer sounding DAC like the PS Audio DirectStream Junior helps some. Its presentation is tonally richer than the Mytek decoder. The treble glare doesn’t distract quite as much from the listening experience.
IFi Micro’s more affordable and more visually discrete S/PDIF iPurifier reclocker lands at DAR HQ soon – we’ll see how it fares in due course – but the application of downstream healers might still be moot.
Why so? The GCA’s hardware shortcomings can be corrected or forgiven but the software compromises heard right here, right now, cannot.
The GCA offers no gapless support for Tidal or Spotify. This might not be an issue for the compulsive track skipper or playback shuffler but for the album lover the GCA renders thousand of long players as unlistenable.
From DJ mixes to classical pieces, not to mention the countless rock albums whose artist-intended seamlessness is fundamental to the immersive nature of the listening experience, the GCA’s insertion of split second gaps between tracks is a most unwelcome addition.
This isn’t a codec issue. Spotify’s streams are carried via Ogg Vorbis and Tidal use FLAC, both of which offer native gapless support (unlike MP3).
It’s not a smart device issue either. The gaps evaporate once playback is returned to the host Android/iOS app, thus defeating the GCA’s intent to stream directly from Tidal’s servers.
It’s clear: playback gaps are introduced by the Chromecast Audio itself – not something we hear from vinyl, CDs or even Bluetooth transmission.
It might be tempting to point to the GCA’s asking price and shrug one’s shoulders — but does that not imply that the mainstream, at whom this streaming device is largely aimed, care not about gaps? Of course they do.
For those willing to invest mote in the streaming experience, Tidal’s Hifi tier promises “CD Quality playback”. CDs are gapless. The GCA is not. Therefore, the in-home CD store as ordinarily heard via Tidal’s own desktop and iDevice apps isn’t forthcoming.
Furthermore, Tidal’s own FAQ claims: “…delivering the music to your ears the way the artists and producers intended it to be heard” come back to bite them at the hands of the GCA. Did those same artists and producers intend (longer) intra-track gaps? Unlikely.
At a time when the the world’s music fans are surrendering catalogue control by waving a long goodbye to the CD, the omission of gapless playback on ANY streaming device is a backwards step on the now outmoded shiny silver discs.
To quote Benjamin Franklin: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”. In other words, you don’t get what you don’t pay for.
Further information: Google Chromecast Audio