A Performance Hack For Google’s Chromecast Audio
Several months ago Google released a new product that grabbed my attention almost immediately. It’s called the Google Chromecast Audio. It’s a little puck that can connect just about any audio system to the web, delivering the near unimaginable riches of streaming music and radio. If you know me, or have followed my posts, articles and blogs, then you probably know that I consider myself an audiophile. In many ways it was the quest for a better listening experience that brought me into this industry in the first place! I immediately saw the Chromecast Audio as a promising bridge between today’s connected content and yesterday’s “golden age” hi-fi culture, and I wanted one (okay, I got four of them).
You’d almost have to live under a rock to be unaware of the Google Chromecast product line. It arrived several years ago as the original Chromecast, an HDMI-equipped inexpensive dongle that ported Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and dozens of other services (frustratingly, Amazon Prime isn’t one of them) onto LCD and plasma displays that aren’t smart. That is, it’s the perfect companion to any A/V system that doesn’t already have a simple, intuitive interface for various video and audio web apps. Chromecast has been updated for 2016 with a hot new look, a rich feature set and two versions; Chromecast and Chromecast Audio. They work together to deliver a comprehensive multi-room media experience for a surprisingly affordable $35 per room.
The Chromecast Audio is a modest package. A puck 2-inches across and ½-inch thick, there is a USB connection (for power) and a 3.5mm port for audio. That’s it. With such a simple design one could wonder what kind of hacks could possibly exist? Well Google put a pretty cool option into this little fellow. That 3.5mm audio jack is also an optical digital jack!
When we listen to music in the digital domain, whether the music is from a compact disc, downloaded song or streaming music service, we are really listening to the analog output of a digitally sampled representation of an original analog event. Simple, right? Actually, it is.
Our ears work in an analog domain. Changes in pressure (sound waves) moving through a medium (air) sympathetically excite the ear drum (tympanic membrane). The ear drum is connected to the inner ear (cochlea) via three “ear bones” (auditory ossicles), where the physical motion of the ear drum is converted into signals that are then transferred to the brain where they can be processed into the sensation we call “hearing.” It’s an awesome thing! Both microphones and speakers work in a similar manner, with soundwaves creating movement in mechanical devices which, in turn, convert that acoustic signal into an electrical signal (hence the label “electro-acoustic” device). It’s only when we record the sound into a computer file that it is sampled and becomes “digital.”
Why all this talk about analog and digital? Every time a signal is transposed, a bit of its detail is lost. The richness of the recording environment, the “space” around the instruments, and even core elements of the instruments themselves are all compromised. It’s this quest for auditory virtual reality that fuels the desire to invest in better speakers and more powerful home theater components. It’s the detail that matters. As the sound loses detail, so it loses life, becoming flat and two-dimensional. Minimizing the number of times your music moves into, or out of, the digital domain is an easy way to maximize the purity of your listening experience.
Most contemporary A/V receivers operate in a fully digital environment. That is to say they take the digital sound from an HDMI, TOSLink or S/PDIF input, subject it to digital equalization and surround sound processing, and pass it along to the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) at the very last possible moment. The signal is kept in the digital domain as long as possible. If you connect a digital source like the Chromecast Audio to the analog inputs of such a receiver, the sound originates in analog, is converted to digital to stream to the Chromecast, is converted to analog to connect to the receiver, is then re-converted to digital by the receiver to be processed, and is finally re-converted to analog before being passed on to the amplifiers and speakers. That’s a lot of converting!
You can avoid a lot of sonic compromise by keeping the signal coming out of your Google Chromecast Audio in the digital domain. That 3.5mm jack can deliver music in a fully digital format using light and an optical pathway. All you need is the right cable. Which is why I’m writing this article. It turns out that getting the right cable can be a bit confusing.
The Chromecast Audio comes with a short, quality 3.5mm stereo copper cable. This is fine if you are going to connect your Chromecast to a Bose Wave radio. You’ll need something different if you’re going to connect it to a state-of-the-art digital sound-bar or audiophile approved AVR or digital pre-amp. You’ll need a mini TOSLink to standard TOSLink optical cable. Available in 1, 2 or 3 meter lengths, C2G TOSLink cables are very affordable. When I compare the cost of the Chromecast Audio and matching TOSLink cable (about $50) to the cost of my 10-year old music server (about $2,000), the differences are startling. Chromecast Audio crushes both the sound quality and user interface of the older device. And with Google Play Music housing my collection of songs, Slacker Radio delivering the best in curated collections, Pandora pushing my favorite blends and Spotify surprising me with new artists every day, my whole-house audio system has never seen more use!
If your audio system is fresh out of TOSLink inputs, you can always use a S/PDIF coaxial digital input and keep the Chromecast Audio signal in the digital domain by adding an optical-to-coaxial digital converter to your system. Or you might want to consider a TOSLink selector switch to add a few more inputs. Or if a digital connection is just plain out of the question and you need to roll old school analog, rest assured that you’re not limited to the 6-inch patch cable supplied by Google. Specifically designed to provide quality signal transfer to any audio device with RCA audio input jacks, C2G’s Velocity analog interconnects feature 27AWG oxygen-free copper conductors, 100% dual shielding and gold-plated connectors. You can get them in 1.5, 3, 6, 12, 25 and even 50-foot lengths.