When I first heard of the Aether Cone it instantly grabbed my attention. I mean, it’s gorgeous.
The design is elegant, simple, clever, and fun all at once. There are two color versions: a white with polished aluminum and a black with polished copper. I chose the latter, of course.
The Aether Cone is an AirPlay speaker (yea, more than an AirPlay speaker). It weighs nearly 3 pounds, is about 6 inches tall and wide, and costs $399. While it looks like little more than a speaker, it’s actually a computer whose sole function is to find and play music for you based on the Rdio catalog.
On the back of the cone is the on/off switch. On the top are two small buttons for turning the volume up or down. And on the front is the speaker grill which can be spun as a “turntable” of sorts (more on that later), and in the center of that grill is a single touch-sensitive button.
Tapping the front button will pause or play the current song. Tap-and-hold and you can speak to the Cone and request a certain song, album, or artist.
If you don’t like what’s playing, turn the speaker grill one “click” and it will advance to the next song. If you want to escape completely from the current genre or artist that is playing, spin it several clicks worth and the Aether Cone will shuffle to something altogether different.
The sound quality of the Cone is excellent for its size. It is full and clear and will get plenty loud without distorting. And for outside use it projects very well — far better than the Bluetooth speakers I own.
The other night, my wife and boys and I had dinner on the farm table in our back yard. After dinner, my boys and I went to play on the swing set that’s on the other side of our yard about 45 feet away from the table. I left the Cone on the table but aimed it in our direction. I turned it up to 80% volume, and could hear the music, even over the laughter of my two boys as I pushed them in their swings.
One of the best things about a wireless speaker is that you can take it outside. I have a couple of portable bluetooth speakers in my house, and for its size and battery life (~8 hours), the Cone sounds better than both of them and can project at better volume.
The Cone sounds better than both my Jawbone Jambox and my Sound Blaster Roar. Of course, considering it’s 4x the price of the Jambox and nearly 3x the price the price of the Sound Blaster, the Cone had darn well sound better.
However, the Aether Cone does not have Bluetooth. Which means though it’s wireless, it isn’t exactly portable in the fullest sense of the word — it’s tethered to Wi-Fi. And so you could say it has a disadvantage against my Bluetooth speakers in that I could never take the Aether Cone to the park. But, considering the size and weight of the Cone, I’d never take it to the park anyway.
And then there is another disadvantage, in that as an AirPlay speaker only, there are much better options out there. In our living room we have the Pioneer SMA4 speaker and the sound quality is excellent, and it’s about $125 less than the Aether Cone. Or, for just $30 this adapter will take any speaker or stereo you have that’s got an aux input and turn it into an AirPlay receiver. And yet…
Over the past three months that I’ve had the Aether Cone, I have turned to it almost exclusively whenever I want to listen to music. Why? Because it’s frictionless, it’s fun, and the sound is more than good enough for almost every situation.
There are plenty of times when I know exactly the artist — if not the song — I want to listen to. But there are equal number of times when I know I want to listen to something but I don’t know what. The Aether Cone is frictionless in this regard because you just hit play and something will come on. And if what comes on is a song you don’t like, then go ahead and request an artist or song that you know you want, or just turn that dial, live on the wild side, and let the Cone find something else for you.
And that is exactly where the magic come in. You see, unlike my Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers, the Aether Cone doesn’t need an iPhone or iPad in order to work. The Cone can play music and be controlled completely on its own.
And since it doubles as an AirPlay speaker, it can of course stream music from any iOS app. Not to mention Aether also has their own iPhone app for controlling the Cone.
After unboxing the Cone, I did what anyone else would do. I turned it on.
I somewhat expected there to be voice instructions telling me to enter in my Wi-Fi network’s password using the speaker grill dial as if it were a combination safe. But when that didn’t happen, I looked to the instructions. (I’m being completely serious.)
Setting up the speaker to work on my home Wi-Fi network was actually a little bit magical — far easier than cracking a safe. I simply launched the Settings app on my iPhone and navigated to the Wi-Fi section. There, underneath the list of networks was an option to set up an AirPlay device and the Aether Cone was listed. I tapped on the button for the Cone and the login credentials for my current Wi-Fi network were automatically passed on to the Cone. A few moments later, the Cone was connected to my home Wi-Fi.
When you turn the Aether Cone on, it takes about 30 seconds to “boot up” and connect to the Wi-Fi network. While it is powering on, the LED ring around the center button spins, and then flashes one time when it’s ready. Once the speaker is powered on, if it’s not playing music there’s no way to know if it’s actually on or not.
The iPhone App
The iPhone App for the Aether Cone is simple and nice.
You log in to your Rdio account through the Aether app and then from there you can find music to play. The app’s main screen shows you simply what is currently playing. From there you have one-tap access to “like” the song, change the song, pause it, and/or adjust the volume of the Cone.
You can also search Rdio for a specific song, album, or artist, and you can chose one of your playlists to play.
Swiping left in the app takes you to the settings where, if you have more than one Aether Cone, you can control each one from the app. You also get to see the remaining battery life left on the Cone.
Swiping right gives you some more info on the current song and artist, as well as a list
What’s especially cool about the app is that it works without being connected to the same Wi-Fi network as the speaker. The app communicates with the speaker through the Aether server. So, you know, it’s a cool way to prank your spouse or roommates when you’re out of the house.
The Social dynamic
There’s a cool social-friendly element to the Cone. Because anyone can control it by just spinning the dial or requesting a specific song / artist.
So, set the speaker out during your next backyard cookout and leave some instructions for your friends on how to play DJ. Tell them to spin the dial one click for a new song, a lot of clicks for a whole new genre, or if they have a special request to just tap and hold on the center button and talk to the speaker.
And, of course, if you don’t like what they pick, you can secretly take control again from your iPhone. Even if you’re at the gas station getting more ice.
The Cone is pretty good a deciphering what I’m saying. I mostly ask it to play an artist, but I’ve also requested specific songs — play “Sitting by the Dock on the Bay” by Otis Redding” — and albums — play Futures by Jimmy Eat World.
For almost every request, the Cone plays exactly what I ask for. And even when standing at arm’s length — the farthest you away you can be due to the fact you have to be pressing the button to activate the voice request — it has been able to hear and understand me.
The times the Cone has not played what I asked always seem to be due to confusion (or lack) with the Rdio catalog. For instance, I once asked it to play something relaxing, and I got some weird ocean white noise with bells and an organ in the background. I instantly turned the dial. Another time I requested the song “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra, and I got the New York, New York theme song instead.
When requesting just an artist, Rdio’s stations have gotten much better over the past several months. Long-time readers of my website will know I’m a John Mayer fan. Asking the Cone to play John Mayer will start a station of only John Mayer songs, and it does a great job at picking good ones.
My biggest quibble, is that I wish I could request a certain playlist as well as genre/mood. If I ask the Cone to play some dinner music, then I get an album titled “Dinner Music” instead of a Pandora-like station for dinner music. This is, as far as I know, a limitation of Rdio itself — Rdio doesn’t have any genre stations.
So? Is it worth $400?
…only if you like gadgets like this and have an Rdio account.
I would not have bought one if I had not gotten a discount. As a long-time Rdio subscriber, I was able to get the cone for about $220, and I’m quite happy with it. I doubt I would have spent the full-priced $400.
The Aether Cone is a gadget that does one thing and it does it very well. It’s niche to be sure, but it’s also excellent and wonderful. The build quality, the service, the accompanying app, are all well done and top notch. If the Cone sounds appealing to you, I think you’d be quite happy with it.