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Sorry, Music Fans: The Aether Cone Speaker Can’t Read Your Mind

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech

(Darren Weaver)

Can your music system know what you want to listen to before you do? That’s one of the ambitious claims made by Aether’s Cone speaker, which was announced with great fanfare last March. Created by former employees of Apple, Google, and Nokia, the Bluetooth-enabled gadget connects to streaming music services over WiFi and adapts to your tastes.

Aether claims that its $399 standalone speaker can figure out exactly what you want to hear, when you want to hear it — and then let you switch songs or musical genres with a few voice commands.

I lived with the Cone running a pre-release version of Aether’s software software for a month in my small Brooklyn studio, and I have to say it looks and sounds great. But the voice recognition is still somewhat spotty, and as a source of discovery for new music, it’s still not dramatically better than just using Beats, SoundCloud, or the myriad other free apps out there.

Say what?
Aether’s promise is that you can simply breeze into a room, tap a button on the Cone, and hear something wonderful. Before you do anything, though, you’ll need to pair your iPhone (iOS 7.1) or Mavericks-enabled Mac via Bluetooth, and connect it to your WiFi network using the mobile app or your Mac.

Then you choose a starter song to match your musical mood. You can do this by searching within Aether’s iOS app, choosing a music streaming service (Rdio and Stitcher were the only compatible ones at publication time), or selecting anything from your iTunes library. You can also tap the center button of the speaker and say the name of the song you want to hear out loud, and the Cone will select the tune from Rdio’s database (available for $10 a month).

This is where the magic allegedly happens. When you press the button, its border illuminates with a glowing LED light. If you say “Play ‘Last Night’ by the Strokes,” the light will start snaking around it in a circle as it retrieves your request. Within a couple of seconds it will play a song — hopefully, the one you asked for. 

And this is where the Cone is not so magical. The speaker’s voice recognition does well with short band names like “The Kinks” or tracks with relatively simple titles like “ ‘Heartbreaker’ by the Walkmen.” But longer, vowel-heavy phrases sometimes mess it up. When I tried to call up Lorde’s “Royals,” the Cone gave me A$AP Ferg’s “Lord” and “Lord Knows” by Drake, among a few others. And if you don’t subscribe to Rdio, you’re out of luck.

The good news is that the Cone’s Nuance-controlled voice recognition software improved over time. But it’s still nowhere near as immediately responsive as, say, the Amazon Fire TV’s voice control, which worked really well straight out of the box. Given all the impossibly weird, hard-to-say musician names out there (Devendra Banhart, anyone?) that’s not good. As you might imagine, having to continually repeat a phrase aloud as your speaker blasts the wrong song in your face does not make for a soothing entertainment experience.

(Darren Weaver)

Train in vain
The Cone’s audio quality is crisp and powerful, especially for a speaker weighing just 2.9 pounds. It’s more than adequate for a small apartment or intimate party, and the eight-hour rechargeable lithium-ion battery makes it highly portable (assuming you can find WiFi). That said, the Cone is no match for the surround sound that the Sonos 5 Driver HiFi Speaker System can deliver for the same $399 price.

Theoretically, you’re paying extra for the Cone to find new music that you’ll love. To do that, you need to tell it something about your tastes. For example, if you turn up the volume on a song, Cone recognizes it as a track you like. You can also “heart” any great song you hear using the custom-made app.

Even after the speaker starts making good decisions, you must continue to train it by actively skipping or liking tracks. You can do this via the app or manually by turning the dial at the edge of the speaker. To hear something in an entirely new genre, just spin the dial.

To like a song, tap the heart icon below the title and artist within the Cone app. Pulling to the right displays your remaining battery life; to the left offers more info on the artist.

As I used the Cone over the past month, I noticed that it repeated a few litmus-test songs to learn my preferences, which can sometimes be annoying. I can only listen to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Aeroplane Over the Sea,” so many times before losing my mind.

I found that the Cone hits a groove after you skip through and listen to about two or three songs. Once that happens, you’ve reached a musical oasis. If you like public radio in the morning, it’ll play NPR, one of the thousands of Internet radio stations available via the unit. If you tend to listen to sleepy indie rock on Sunday afternoons, it’s got plenty of that for you, too. I’ve found myself lost in many long sessions of different genres, some of which I revisited on the app so I could note what had been playing.

But are occasionally enlightening listening sessions worth $399? To my eyes and ears, the slick design doesn’t outweigh the time and effort required to train the voice control and music discovery features, especially when you can buy a premium wireless Sonos system that connects to more music services for the same amount. 

I looked at a relatively early version of the Cone, which got better as its software was updated. It’s bound to improve even more—Aether says it plans to add more listening features and streaming options, though it had yet to name any more at publication time. Right now, though, it’s a pretty curiosity that hits a few too many wrong notes.

On June 23, Cone will be available to purchase here for an exclusive period to Rdio Unlimited subscribers.

This article was updated to indicated that we looked at a pre-release version of the Cone speaker.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here