In a previous piece I talked at length about Amazon's Echo, and how it differentiates -- or rather lacks features from SONOS' ZonePlayers that as a long-time SONOS user I have come to appreciate.
As a result of that piece, I was contacted by the PR department at Aether, a San Francisco-based startup that makes an internet-enabled music player that seemingly combines the best of both worlds -- the voice recognition of the Amazon Echo, but with the multi-room capabilities and sound reproduction quality of the SONOS Play:3.
They asked if I would like to evaluate one, so of course I said yes.
Other than the sound reproduction quality -- which is excellent -- you may be wondering what the real differentiation on this device is.
Before we get into the features of the product and how it works relative to its competition, I have to point out that the Aether Cone is really targeting itself to more of an upscale market than either that of the Echo or a SONOS Play:3.
Out of the box, the product looks like and is built like something that came out of Cupertino, and it would not surprise me if they are aspiring to be one of Apple's next acquisition targets.
It's an attractive-looking product, to be sure.
The build quality on the Cone is excellent and the sound reproduction on the unit is fabulous, due to its high-quality 3" woofer, dual tweeters and integrated 20W amp.
All of this attention to build quality comes at a premium -- $399.
That's $50 more than a pair of SONOS Play:1 that's currently on promotion, $200 more than the Amazon Echo's full retail price ($250 more than their Prime member price) and also $100 more than a SONOS Play:3, which is their mid-range speaker and has similar sound reproduction capability to the Aether Cone.
SONOS's Play:5, which has more integrated speakers and has a higher wattage, is the same price as the Cone.
Unlike both the Echo and the SONOS ZonePlayer devices, the Cone is rechargeable and has an 8 hour battery life. So while it can stay plugged in most of the time, you can easily move it around the home and bring it outside, even if you don't have an available power source.
Like the Echo, the Aether Cone has voice recognition, although it isn't passive -- you have to walk up to the device, touch a lighted button on the front of the speaker and then speak to it. It also doesn't come with a physical remote like the Echo does.
Aether uses industry-leading licensed voice recognition technology from Nuance Communications, the folks that brought you Dragon NaturallySpeaking.
Like the Echo, you can also play content to the Cone via Bluetooth, and it also acts as an AirPlay device. Setup of the unit is fairly easy, through a web-based interface that you can access on any smartphone or tablet.
Like the SONOS ZonePlayers, the Aether Cone is also a multi-room system and they can be paired with each other using the Aether iOS app, although I didn't have the opportunity to test this as only one device was sent to review.
Other than the sound reproduction quality -- which is excellent -- you may be wondering what the real differentiation on this device is. It has to do with how it is able to learn your tastes in music, and when to play them.
Although many might consider this a limitation, the streaming media services that the Aether Cone can currently use is Rdio, which has free and paid options depending on the plan you choose, and Stitcher, which has access to podcasts and radio stations.
It should be noted that SONOS also has the ability to stream music from Rdio as well. Echo can also do it, but only via Bluetooh from a mobile device running the Rdio client.
However, it's unknown how deep into Rdio's APIs and song metadata the Aether's cloud intelligence (which runs on Amazon AWS) can dig in.
The folks at Aether were a bit cagey when I asked them about this, but suffice to say that there is some secret sauce going on with the way the device is able to talk to the service, and how it is able to learn one's music preferences.
Say for example, in the morning, right after I wake up, I walk over to the Cone, hit the voice recognition button and I say, "Play some Led Zeppelin". Depending on my Rdio subscription level, it will play Zeppelin tracks until I decide to change it, either through the voice interface or rotating the speaker bezel.
Depending on the amount I rotate that bezel is the degree of variance the music style will change. So it might turn into the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Sex Pistols. Or something else entirely.
In the evening, I might ask it to play slow Jazz, or a specific Jazz artist like Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman or Tito Puente. Over a period of days, the Aether Cone learns this behavior, and one simply needs to turn the speaker on and expect that it will play music that is personalized to one's tastes.
And most of the time, I would say it works pretty well.
What doesn't work so well? Well, for the most part I would say that the iOS app is a bit beta-ware and the Cone doesn't respond to it very well. That's because it communicates directly to Aether's cloud service running on AWS, which then talks to your Cone.
So there's an appreciable delay (in fact I would say the app is unusable at this current juncture), especially if you want to browse content and artists on Rdio. Aether is working on changing the architecture of this, and the company is very much open to feedback from its users, so suspect that this will improve with time.
Despite the issues with the app, I think the Cone is a very well-engineered product, and it has some nice features that do differentiate it from Echo and SONOS. However, I'm not entirely sure those features justify the significant price difference between it and its competitors, especially given that it only has one content partnership.
The folks at Aether told me they are working on implementing some new stuff which they can't announce yet. I'm looking forward to what they come up with next, because although I like SONOS and Echo, we could certainly use some disruption and additional competition in the space.
What do you think of Aether's Cone? Talk Back and Let Me Know.