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Aether's Cone: A "Thinking" Music Player With Some Rough Edges

The Aether Cone music player is an intelligent speaker that learns your tastes and has voice recognition. But it needs some work.

Three of the big battlegrounds in personal technology today are music services, artificial intelligence and smart physical devices that aim to make common hardware objects around the home brainier. This week, I reviewed an ambitious product that aims to meld all three of these trends — Cone, an intelligent Wi-Fi speaker that its maker calls “the world’s first thinking music player.”

Cone comes from a San Francisco startup called Aether Things, and was unveiled at our Code Conference last month. It goes on sale June 23 for $399 at the company’s website.

I’ve been testing the Cone on and off for weeks prior to its public debut, and since. It’s a handsome device, very different from other speakers, and does indeed show signs that it can use some degree of artificial intelligence to learn your musical tastes and habits. But it can also be frustrating, needs improvement, has limitations, and requires time and dedication to work as advertised.

From the front, Cone looks like a traditional whole-room speaker, with a large, round, black grill. But the similarities end there. There’s a nearly invisible button in the middle of the grill that’s used to control aspects of the device, like play and pause. More importantly, pushing the button allows you to issue voice commands, like “Play ‘Graceland’ by Paul Simon.”

And — also nearly invisible — there is a rotating black rim around the speaker grill that you twirl to skip songs or to entirely change the type of music it plays, depending on how far you spin it. A short spin skips to the next song in an album or a song by another artist in the same genre. A long spin switches to a different type of music altogether.

From the rear, the Cone looks even less like a traditional speaker. Two copper-colored volume buttons sit toward the top, and the whole device is sharply tapered down to a copper-colored end cap. This houses the on-off switch and a power jack.

There are no inputs or outputs for either traditional audio cables or a wired Ethernet connection. That’s because the Cone is meant to stream music wirelessly from cloud services or, if you prefer, from an Apple device using that company’s wireless AirPlay feature. It can’t be directly connected to a home-theater system.

At launch, the Cone can only play music from one streaming service, Rdio, which costs $10 a month for an unfettered subscription. It also connects to Stitcher, a service that streams podcasts and radio stations. The company hopes to add more services, and also plans to offer a white-and-silver model later this year. It’s also tightly tied to Apple products. A Mac or iOS mobile device is needed to set it up, and its companion app is iOS-only. The company says it’s working on Android compatibility, but has no timetable.

I am not an audiophile, so I can’t offer a detailed critique of Cone’s sound. I found it inferior to the lowest-end Sonos speaker, the $199 Play 1, which I own, but it was more than adequate for pleasant listening, especially with rock, pop and country music. It can be cranked up loud enough to fill a room with sound.

Unlike the Sonos, Cone is battery-powered and is meant to be movable from room to room, though it’s not fully portable like a small Bluetooth speaker. It weighs about three pounds and is about six inches tall, wide and deep. During my weeks of testing, I found it easy to move around my home, and used it comfortably in the family room, kitchen, study and back porch.

The company says that, if you use it a lot for several weeks, Cone will not only figure out what music you like, but what you like to hear at different times in different rooms. It does this using the device’s built-in firmware plus the company’s algorithms in the cloud.

In my tests, Cone did deduce that I am a big fan of singer-songwriters from the ’60s and ’70s, and defaulted to those artists. And first thing in the morning, it often, but not always, went to NPR, which I like to check at that time. But training Cone to display all its claimed wizardry apparently takes much more time over consecutive days than I was able to devote to it. It never seemed to tailor its suggestions for me by location, or day of the week, as the company claims.

Aether makes a big point of saying that because of its built-in smart controls, Cone doesn’t need to rely on an app or remote control, like other speakers. It has no dedicated remote control.

But it does have a minimal app. This app is largely meant to solve a problem in Cone’s design — there’s no screen, and the unit lacks the ability to speak. So, you have to rely on the app if you want to know what song Cone has chosen to play, especially if it isn’t one you recognize.

I found the app, which is still being polished, to be buggy. In normal use, it would smartly switch to a nice visual of the album being played, and would allow you to swipe to learn more about the artist or see and play the songs on the album. But too often the app failed to detect the song being played, or seemed to freeze. It also has no controls for skipping songs — you have to use the rotating rim for that.

The company says it’s working on adding a “what’s playing” voice feature and others, such as the ability to tell Cone if you like or dislike a song.

And that brings up another limitation of Cone. Though it looks like, and plays like, a whole-room speaker, you really have to use it as a personal device, well within arm’s length, to operate the spinning dial and give it voice commands. If you are with others and want to crank up the volume, it will be too close to your ears for comfortable listening.

That said, once it figured out what I liked, it did a good job of playing a string of songs that matched my tastes. If I asked for “Hotel California” by The Eagles, it would play other Eagles songs, and tunes by artists like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Carole King, James Taylor and Paul Simon.

When I gave the dial a big spin to hear something entirely different, it would start playing Beyoncé, the Strokes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, in one case, Yo-Yo Ma.

The biggest frustration was using voice commands. As on so many other devices and software that rely on voice input, Cone missed the mark too often. It never could recognize the singer-songwriter “J.D. Souther,” and when I asked for the pop band “Fountains of Wayne,” I got the hip-hop artist “Lil Wayne,” which is quite different.

I see Cone as a work in progress. It’s a fascinating new take on a music player, but I would only recommend shelling out $399 for one if you’re willing to spend a lot of time training it, and to put up with errant voice commands and a limited app.

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