[Editor's Note, 12/16/15: Aether has discontinued its operations, and the acquisition and consequent shutdown of the Rdio streaming service means that the unique features of this product, like voice search, are no longer active. If you've purchased an Aether Cone, you can perform a firmware update that turns the speaker into a basic AirPlay/Bluetooth tabletop speaker and adds Spotify Connect. More details are available at Aether.com.]
Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers are a dime a dozen these days, spanning a vast range of shapes, sizes, and price points. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish one's offerings, which is perhaps why the new Aether Cone tabletop music system ($399) recently caught my eye. Both in form and function, the Cone breaks from the me-too mold, so I couldn't resist taking it for a test drive.
First, let's talk form. You can likely surmise from its name what this speaker looks like. It indeed looks like a cone. The front, circular face has a 6.25-inch diameter and a plastic grille that covers one three-inch woofer and two tweeters, which are driven by a 20-watt Class D amplifier. The speaker is available in two finishes: Aether sent me the black-and-copper model, but I personally prefer the Apple-esque look of the silver-and-white model.
In the center of the Cone's front face is a play/pause/voice-command button. The only other controls are the volume up/down buttons that sit on the unit's topside. Around back, you'll find an on/off switch and a power port. For completely wireless operation, the Cone contains a rechargeable lithium-ion battery with a purportedly eight-hour battery life.
In addition to Wi-Fi, the Cone features built-in support for both Bluetooth and AirPlay. Many manufacturers opt for only one of those three wireless options, so you get a nice degree of flexibility here to stream your music in any way that's convenient at the moment. The one connection method it lacks is an auxiliary input for a wired connection.
Where the Cone truly distinguishes itself is in its voice control and integrated streaming platforms. The reason I'd call this a tabletop radio as opposed to a tabletop speaker is that several streaming platforms--namely, Rdio, Stitcher, and Internet radio stations--are built in, so you don't need to rely on an external source like a phone, tablet, or computer to stream content.
Once you have added the Cone to your home's Wi-Fi network via a fairly straightforward setup process (which does require a computer to set up an account), just press and hold that center button and tell the Cone what you want to hear. You can say, "Play the artist Fitz and the Tantrums," and the Cone will cue up the Rdio service to steam an artist-inspired playlist based on Fitz and the Tantrums. The Cone even speaks back to you to confirm what it's about to play, with "Now playing some music by the artist Fitz and the Tantrums." As the artist-inspired playlist continues playing, if you like something you hear, you can ask the Cone "What's playing" to get the name of the artist and song.
Likewise, you can say, "Play the podcast WTF with Marc Maron" or "Play the radio station KBCO." Of course, the caveat is that the requested content has to be offered through Rdio, Stitcher, or the Internet radio lineup. My two favorite radio stations, Los Angeles' KROQ and Boulder's KBCO, were available, and Stitcher offers many of today's hottest podcasts. Rdio has a decent selection of music, but it's not Pandora or Spotify in terms of the selection or quality of the matrix that chooses similar artists. Through Rdio, you can also request a specific song or album, but for that you need to subscribe to the Rdio Unlimited service for $9.99/month.
Another interesting feature is that the entire front face of the Cone rotates to skip tracks or change genres. A small rotation will just skip the current track but keep you in your desired playlist, while a large turn will change the genre entirely. A large turn took me away from the Fitz and the Tantrums playlist and led to some Fleetwood Mac, which was another artist I had previously played.
Aether's "radio" approach is a really interesting take, creatively melding the old tabletop radio concept with today's technologies. Yeah, it takes some experimentation to really get a feel for how the system functions, and it helps to do a little research of Rdio and Stitcher to know what content is available to you. You can browse Rdio's options here and Stitcher's podcast options here (it definitely helps to know the exact name of the podcast or radio station). But the more I played with it, the more I "got" it, and the more fun I had with it.
For those who simply must have visual feedback for what's playing, you can get artist/song/station information via the Aether web portal, or you can download the free Aether mobile app for iOS and Android, which also allows you to use your mobile device as a remote control. I tested the iOS app on my iPhone 4, but the Android app was not compatible with my older Samsung GT-P6210 tablet and Android version 4.0.4.
The iOS app is basic at best, showing you what's playing on the Cone (with cover art if available), with an indication if it's coming from Rdio, Stitcher, Internet radio, AirPlay, or Bluetooth. A play/pause button and volume control are available, as is a search tool where you can type in a new artist, podcast, or radio station. This is helpful if the Cone itself is having trouble finding a certain radio station or artist that you request through a voice command. In my experience, the Cone's voice control worked well most of the time, unless I requested a station/podcast by the wrong name. The only exception was U2: every time I asked it to "Play the artist U2," I got the answer, "You need an Rdio Unlimited subscription to request a specific song"...but I wasn't asking for a specific song.
To be frank, the iOS app was the weak link in the Aether system. Maybe it's because I use an older iPhone 4, but the app crashed and froze on me constantly. It didn't refresh the Now Playing screen in a timely fashion when I woke my phone from sleep; I often had to quit out of it and restart to update the screen. Searching for artists was frustrating: I'd be shown a long list of tracks, albums, etc., but there was no option to just play an artist-inspired playlist like you get when you use the voice command. Unless you have an Rdio Unlimited subscription, you can't request a certain song or album, nor can you access playlists or favorites that you've saved to Rdio.
The final feature of the Aether system is the ability to link multiple Cones together to create a multi-room music system. Once you've added a second (or third or fourth) Cone to your Wi-Fi network, you can use the Web browser or mobile app to "link" the devices together, with one Cone serving as the lead and the other linked members playing the same content, be it from the internal streaming services, AirPlay, or Bluetooth. It's equally easy to unlink the Cones to play different content in each zone.
As for its sound quality, the Aether Cone's performance is solid but not spectacular. With compressed streaming sources, it performed admirably, serving up a balanced sound that was not overly boomy nor overly bright. However, when I switched to higher-quality AIFF demo tracks streamed over AirPlay, the limitations of the Cone's design and size became more apparent. With only a single three-inch "woofer," the Cone is lean in the lower midrange and bass departments. Bass notes from "All Together Now" by The Beatles were clean and well defined, but the lower bass notes in Steve Earle's "Goodbye" were virtually nonexistent, and the harmonica didn't have a lot of meat or breath to it.
On the flip side, vocal reproduction was generally natural, and the high end wasn't overly bright or sterile. If anything, the vocals and guitars in Rage Against the Machine's "Bombtrack" and Chris Cornell's "Seasons" were a bit laid back. Overall dynamic ability was only average--all the other wireless speakers I had on hand for comparison were able to play notably louder than the Cone.
• The Aether Cone has an integrated streaming music player that lets you stream content from Rdio, Stitcher, and Internet radio, so you don't need to bring an external source.
• The speaker's voice control and unique spinning face are a fun way to cue up and control the content.
• The Cone has built-in AirPlay and Bluetooth to stream other sources from a computer or mobile device.
• You can link multiple Cones together to create a multi-room wireless audio system.
• The iOS mobile app needs a lot of work to improve stability and user-friendliness and to compete with other multi-room wireless systems.
• The Cone's dynamic ability and overall sound quality are just average for a speaker at this price point.
Comparison and Competition
When I searched for competing Internet radio options, the company Grace Digital appeared often. The company offers a variety of tabletop radio systems with built-in streaming services; the Encore is the top-of-the-line tabletop radio, with an MSRP of $199.99. The Encore includes more integrated streaming services and a color touchscreen to control them all, but it lacks the AirPlay, Bluetooth, and multi-room functionality of the Cone. Bose and Tivoli Audio are big names in tabletop radios, and some of their products include Wi-Fi connectivity and/or Bluetooth to stream music--but not the integrated streaming services found in the Cone.
In the multi-room wireless speaker space, of course there's top-dog Sonos and the variety of DTS Play-Fi products that have emerged, including the Polk Omni S2 ($179.95) and S2R ($249.95) that I recently reviewed. These speakers don't have the integrated streaming services or the AirPlay support; you have to bring in all content from a mobile device or other source device. I compared the Cone directly to the lower-priced Omni S2R. I felt that the Cone served up more natural vocals and produced a more even soundfield across the room, but the Omni S2R had more lower midrange and bass presence and better dynamic ability. The Definitive Technology W7 Play-Fi speaker carries the same $399 asking price as the Cone.
I also compared the Cone directly with the Aperion Allaire ARIS tabletop speaker, which costs $297 base or $334 with a Bluetooth adapter. The ARIS outperformed the Cone in every performance category, offering much better dynamic capability; clearer, airier highs; and a much better low-end presence. But you don't get the integrated streaming services, voice control, or built-in AirPlay.
From a features standpoint, the Aether Cone is a fully loaded tabletop music system, combining Bluetooth, AirPlay, and Wi-Fi support in a uniquely designed rechargeable speaker. The Cone is a compelling choice for those who want a tabletop Internet radio solution. The integrated music, radio, and podcast services free up your mobile devices for other uses, but you can still enjoy big-name services like Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes via Bluetooth/AirPlay when the urge strikes you. The voice/dial control is a lot of fun, and the multi-room support is a nice perk.
That being said, the Cone's sound quality isn't really competitive with the likes of the Sonos, Definitive, and Aperion systems I mentioned above--and given its $399 price, I think it's fair to have higher sonic expectations. Yes, the Cone's performance is solid for compressed streaming services and Internet radio, if that's your priority. But the music lover who wants a higher-performance tabletop speaker for higher-quality sources will likely want to look elsewhere.