If you’ve wanted to wirelessly send music from your Android smartphone to an external speaker, your options have been fairly limited. There’s Bluetooth, which is ubiquitous but limited in range and capability. There’s a miasma of standards with silly sounding names like PlayFi or obtuse acronyms like DLNA that haven’t really caught on with speaker manufacturers. There are closed systems, such as Sonos, that are reliable, but limited in which services they support.
That’s why Google announced Cast for audio earlier this year. It’s essentially the Android answer to Apple's AirPlay: a one-button option to send music or audio from your smartphone to a compatible speaker over Wi-Fi. The advantages of a Wi-Fi based system over Bluetooth are numerous: there’s no pairing involved, you can pair multiple speakers into stereo or surround arrays, and the sound quality is much better.
Cast for audio is based on the same technology Google uses for its Chromecast dongle, just without the video capabilities. A number of speaker manufacturers have signed up to support Cast, including Sony, LG, and Denon, and any audio app that supports the Chromecast can wirelessly send music to a compatible speaker. That includes iOS apps, unlike AirPlay, which is limited to Apple’s mobile platforms; Cast isn’t just for Android devices.
LG’s Music Flow line of wireless speakers are the first Google Cast speakers available for purchase, and I’ve had a chance to test them out for the past few weeks. The Music Flow speakers are very similar to what Sonos offers: there’s a large one (H7), a medium one (H5), a small one (H3), and a couple of soundbar options. The most interesting option of the lot is also the smallest: the diminutive, battery-powered H4 is the size of a regular Jambox, but has all of the same connectivity options, including Wi-Fi, of its larger siblings. Pricing ranges from $179 for the 30-watt H3 on up to $999 for the top of the line soundbar, making the Music Flow line just a hair less expensive than Sonos’ options.
All of the Music Flow speakers support Wi-Fi streaming with both Cast and Spotify Connect, which means they are compatible with most any audio app you might want to use. The speakers also support direct Bluetooth connections, so you can play any audio from any app if you’re not using a Cast compatible service or Spotify. If you have an Android phone, there’s NFC to make pairing over Bluetooth easier.
Playing music on a Music Flow speaker is very similar to using an AirPlay speaker. Once you’re on the same Wi-Fi network as the speaker, open your app, press the Cast button, and choose which speaker you want sound to come out of.
LG also has a Music Flow app for both iOS and Android that is used to set up the speakers on your wireless network, pair them in stereo or surround sound modes, and send music that’s stored on the phone or tablet to the speaker system. Chances are that if you’re interested in these speakers, you’ll use the app to get them set up on your network and then just head over to Google Play Music, Rdio, Spotify, or any other compatible app to play music on them.
Music Flow speakers connect directly to your wireless network without an extra bridge or hub in between, and they form a sort of mesh network between themselves to improve setup and connectivity. But if you are trying to use the speakers in a room that’s far from your wireless router, you might have some connectivity issues. I had the soundbar hooked up to the TV in my living room, which is downstairs from where my router is, and it would occasionally disconnect from the network. But for the most part, the Music Flow speakers are as reliable as the Sonos speakers I typically use at home, and the sound quality is just as good for most people.
LG's speakers sound just as good as Sonos and can be more flexible
The first speakers with Cast support are promising, but if the service is really going to gain traction, many more options are needed. It’s the same issue that has kept AirPlay from really being ubiquitous: there are far more Bluetooth options than AirPlay, even though the standard has been around for years. Still, if you’ve been looking for the ease and fidelity of AirPlay, but aren’t using an iPhone, LG’s Music Flow speakers answer your call.