Aether’s Cone, an impressively sleek smart speaker, has been a chart-topping hit since it was unveiled earlier this year. The lightweight metal cornucopia of sound works with partners like music streaming service Rdio and National Public Radio to offer a wide range of music and news on demand. It accepts voice-recognition requests powered by Nuance and interfaces with a free iOS app that allows users to change the song or volume from across the room. Until recently, Cone was only available through Aether.com and required a $9.99 Rdio Unlimited subscription.
This week, the three-pound speaker, previously available only in black and copper, arrives in an Apple-esque white and silver. Cone begins shipping via Amazon.com (AMZN), and will be on the shelves in Selfridges in London. The next generation Cone will sell and ship with a free, ad-supported Rdio account, a compromise that will somewhat limit a user’s ability skip between songs and genres. But it makes Cone the only smart speaker to come bundled with 30 million preloaded songs. (Cone users can still pay for a full Rdio account to continue bypassing unwanted ads and songs.) There will also be a web-based setup for non-iOS users.
Visually speaking, Cone is more Design Within Reach than Best Buy. It’s also costlier than many competitors, retailing for $399 compared to Bose’s $299.95 SoundLink, a $199 Beats Pill, or $149 for Jawbone’s full-size Jambox. If anything, Cone’s closest competitor is Bang and Olufsen’s sleek Beolit 12, recently reduced to $599. Amazon’s forthcoming Echo, equipped with Siri-like speech recognition that answers questions and recites information like the weather forecast, will cost $199 (or, for a limited time, $99 for Amazon Prime members). But no word on when the Echo, currently available for pre-order by invite only, will actually go on sale.
Cone, originally a stealth enterprise called The Morse Project, was several years in the making, but not just in terms of its obvious visual beauty. The unseen allure is in its programming, built on exhaustive research in the homes of friends and family, says Aether co-founder and chief product officer Duncan Lamb, a product designer who formerly worked at Skype and Nokia. His co-founder, Danish entrepreneur Janus Friis, previously co-founded a number of companies including Skype, Rdio, and the early music file-sharing service KaZaa
The needle-drop moment came in a friend’s home, where the Aether crew spotted a Tivoli radio on kitchen table with an expensive B&O speaker nearby. But it wasn’t the high-end hi-fi that the family used. They relied almost exclusively on the cheaper radio. “They could just click it on, something would play, and it generally wouldn’t suck,” says Lamb. His team understood they should pursue both design and functionality that would offer users the path of least resistance.
Cone works out of the box, meaning that time—that is, patience for Cone to learn your preferences—is the only barrier to entry. To skip a song, turn the dial around the face of the speaker. To change genres, give the dial a more forceful spin. “The spin allows you to teach the system in a gentle way,” Lamb says, noting that Cone will train over time and fewer spins should be needed. When I cued up Rodriguez or Gram Parsons often enough, Cone started selecting Cat Stevens, The Band, and tracks from Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.
If consumers get anything wrong, Lamb says, it’s thinking that Cone is just another battery-powered portable speaker to carry to the kitchen or out to the patio. “It’s cumbersome to say it’s a thinking music player, but I’m almost pedantic about not wanting to call it a speaker,” he admits. “But it’s very important we make that distinction and consider that [Cone] learns, adapts, and evolves. A speaker is a slave to your phone. Personally, I don’t want to be a slave to my phone. I want to be doing other things, not digging out an app three screens away.”
Lamb says there’s some ambition and intent to expand the Aether product line to other smart, sleek devices or appliances. But the main focus is making Cone a success, both for this holiday season and hopefully well beyond. “We run around like an 8-year-old playing soccer, we’ll screw it up,” he says.
Lay down a smooth demo track, though, and the possibilities for remixes could be endless.