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Which is the best WiFi streaming device? - A critical listen to today’s mainstream streaming technology.
There’s a lot of chatter around high definition audio, and audio quality generally at the moment. Also, people demand great audio conveniently, usually via WiFi. Multiroom audio has become a buzzword with some substance. Sonos of course is the dominant force, but more recently a couple of devices have caught my attention as claiming to deliver the same or more than Sonos for a fraction of the price. So, I thought to take a fresh look at the streaming products out there today, to see how they compare, and where the limitations may be, and give them a critical listen (and measurement) for quality.
Diminutive in size, the Google offering has impressed from the start. Low cost, easy to set up, and sounding fantastic, the Chromecast Audio promised much. At it’s launch, it was a single point audio solution, with a promised update during December 2015. Sure enough, late December, an update was automatically applied, enabling you to play music or radio to groups of Chromecast Audios around the home, beautifully in sync.
Somewhat larger than Chromecast Audio, the Gramofon is based on the Qualcomm Allplay system. As such, it promises interconnectivity and compatibility in the future with all kinds of devices and existing multiroom speakers. The look is considerably more ‘HiFi’, intended to stand out rather than to hide away. The circle on the top illuminates to show what's happening. You can press it to quickly play/pause playback, which is a nice touch - although there is no volume control as might be suggested by the circular ID.
In short, no. There is no difference whatsoever in terms of audio quality with any of these devices. And, yes, they are all excellent.
From an audio perspective, the difference between these devices is not noticeable at all. For comparison, I tested in critical listening across a variety of material the Chromecast analogue and optical output (using a professional DAC), the Gramofon, and a Focusrite 2i4 semi-pro audio interface. The comparison shows that both the Chromecast and Gramofon contain very high quality DACs, meaning great audio quality through their 3.5mm jack outputs. Using a test tone and my distortion measurement equipment revealed extremely low levels of distortion. These devices can be used with confidence to deliver the highest quality audio playback in any situation - don’t let their low cost fool you!
Where the difference is much more noticeable is how one uses or controls these devices, which is down to software and support. In this respect, Gramofon wins in my particular scenario of working at my mac, and using it as background music playback. Here is a comparison / score chart.
Both devices are remarkable, offering high quality, and listening flexibility for very little cost. There are no ‘audiophile’ reasons not to buy either device. For people using tablets and phones mainly, the Chromecast is the slightly better choice, being cheaper, and natively supported by more apps. For people using spotify on a desktop, Gramofon is the winner in my view.
Only downside is difficulty of getting to advanced features.
Slightly more complex set up due to needing to join a different WiFi network. It would be better if the app were able to control your phone’s WiFi settings as with the Chromecast app.
Cannot initiate playback from a desktop app. You need to initiate the connection from a phone/tablet. Cannot change volume from the desktop app. Also, Chromecast is more ‘laggy’ when initiating or switching playback. Once it’s working though, it’s solid.
Always ready, can initiate playback from any device. Always able to access volume from the desktop app
|Multiroom / sync||Yes||Yes|
Superb DAC, optical output is present.
Superb DAC, optical output would have made perfection.
|UK app support from the apps on my phone (June 2016)||Spotify, iPlayer Radio, Chrome, Google Play,||Spotify|
|Conclusion||Multi room audio is here, low cost, and sounds fantastic. These devices deliver all the benefits of more expensive systems. Buy one of them today! And no, I am not on commission! (but wish I were)|
*There is some talk in forums that the limitations of Chromecast audio from desktop apps is down to the lack of an API for Chromecast for desktop applications. This limitation is exactly the sort of thing that may well improve in the future.