Google is fast becoming a fundamental part of everyday life, its tentacles reach into nearly every crevice of our work and leisure and this naturally includes audio entertainment. As well as a music streaming service on Prime, Amazon sells the Google Chromecast wifi receiver. This inexpensive (£30) dongle is available in AV form with HDMI connection and audio flavour with an analogue/digital optical output on a miniijack socket. Connect it to an input on your system and you can stream music from a smartphone or tablet. Big deal you might think, I can do that with Bluetooth and have been able to do so for some time. There is a difference however, which is that Bluetooth is ‘lossy’ and limited to 320kbps MP3 whereas it’s possible to send high res, lossless files to a Chromecast audio receiver. It’s good for up to 24/96, which puts it ahead of all but the best proprietary alternatives, none of which enjoy the same breadth of app support, including Spotify, Deezer, BBC iPlayer Radio and many more.
Unsurprisingly some of the more progressive companies in the hi-fi business have realised the potential for this and incorporated a casting receiver option into their products. At the 2017 High End show in Munich two Danish brands showed cast ready products albeit in contrasting styles. Densen is fitting most of its amplifiers and preamplifiers with a Toslink digital input and a USB socket to power a Chromecast dongle, Primare on the other hand has created a module called Prisma (I35 integrated below) that can be built into the majority of its current models as an optional extra. Naim has included a Chromecast receiver in its latest Uniti range of one box amplifier streamers, and another well established UK based company is planning to launch a range of cast capable components in the near future, but this has yet to be publicly announced. There will undoubtedly be more.
The distinction between the Densen (Cast Amp belwo) and Primare approaches is not small. By leaving the hardware to Google Densen avoid the headache and expense of maintaining a technology that could change in the future. If Google comes up with a significant revision of the technology, Densen owners will merely need to buy the latest Chromecast device. But it is not as elegant a solution as the Naim or Primare one where everything is built in and provides a number of other features alongside cast reception. It will be interesting to see which way the market goes, or whether casting catches on with those sensitive to sound quality at all. Even audiophiles are not immune to convenience however, and few can resist the temptation offered by all encompassing streaming services like Spotify even if sound quality is limited (to that same 320kbps).
The real bonus with casting is that almost any music service can be streamed through it, you don’t need a Tidal or Qobuz compatible streamer in your system and nobody offers the ability to receive Spotify in its free form. A few can give you Spotify Connect of course but even they are a minority. And if your tastes run to areas beyond those catered for by the usual services all you need is an app that’s cast compatible. But the main benefit is with lossless music services such as Tidal and Qobuz which offer higher bit rates than Bluetooth can convey.
Chromecast works in the same way as Spotify Connect, your device (tablet, smartphone) tells the receiver what you want to hear and it fetches that material via your wifi network. The music signal does not pass from the device to the receiver like Bluetooth, all that gets transferred are the instructions about what you want to hear. So it applies to material that is available online rather than being stored on your phone or tablet. This means that as well as being able to get high res streaming the control device doesn’t need to be left on. I have been using it to cast Qobuz lossless music through a Naim Uniti Atom (above) and find that it works seamlessly, once you have told the app which receiver to connect with it remembers this and opens up the connection shortly after you open the Qobuz app. Sound quality is on a par with the Tidal stream that you access via the Naim app because the two are working in the same way, it’s just that the Qobuz app isn’t built into Naim’s software. The other benefit is that you can set up a multiroom system with £30 dongles so long as you have enough powered speakers. I haven’t tried that but it has to represent the most affordable avenue available. The only drawback I’ve found is that you are limited to devices that run apps which offer casting, and that excludes most of the software on a laptop or desktop PC, in fact the only thing that is designed to offer this function is the Chrome browser itself. But this is an interesting technology that is both affordable and flexible, and anything that enables higher resolution music streaming is a bonus in my book.