Review: Aether Cone, a music player that learns your tastes, gets smarter with age

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Some things get better with time: wine, jeans and this "smart" music player I've been using on and off for a few months.

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The idea behind the $399 Aether Cone is that over time, it learns your listening habits and weighs such factors as whether it's a lazy Sunday morning. It then plays what it thinks you're in the mood for.

I was skeptical because my music tastes vary depending on how I'm feeling at any particular moment. But I've come to enjoy its sometimes-surprising musical tours.

I also appreciate its lightweight simplicity. At 2.9 pounds and not much bigger than half a football, the cone-shaped device packs a decent stereo system into something I can easily carry around or pack into my carry-on luggage.

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— THE BASICS

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The Cone needs to be on the same Wi-Fi network as your iPhone, iPad or Mac computer. Sorry, Android and Windows users. The Cone can stream music from $10-a-month Rdio Unlimited accounts and free podcasts and radio shows through Stitcher. More services will be added in the coming months.

If you already have an Rdio account, the Cone will use your streaming history to play music that appeals to your tastes. I hadn't been using Rdio, so my Cone started out with generic '90s grunge music.

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— PICKING MUSIC

To skip a song and play one that's similar, turn the Cone's dial one click. A longer spin will take you in an entirely new direction, such as from heavy metal to classical, electronica or even news. Hold down the button in the middle of the Cone's speaker to request specific songs, artists or albums through voice controls.

This worked — for the most part. I told the Cone I wanted to hear NPR radio, but it played a song called "NPR" by Carter Hulsey instead. I had to be specific and request my local public radio station, WNYC, which the Cone played live. Asking for Dr. Dre's "California Love" kept playing an instrumental version for some reason, which was unsatisfying.

If you're tired of voice control, you can type in a song title, artist, album or radio station into the Aether app on your mobile device or Mac computer. The app is also where you can see what song is currently playing, as the Cone has no display screen.

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— HEY MISTER DJ

When friends came over for wine and cheese, I introduced the Cone the way I would a pet or a robot roommate. Intrigued, my friend requested The Monkees. Once the music started playing, though, my friend remarked that "this isn't The Monkees; this is some third-wave ska." I am not sure what third-wave ska sounds like, but it definitely wasn't the Monkees. A few more enunciated attempts got the desired result.

Later that afternoon, we graduated to Van Morrison before I requested "What Do I Get?" by the Buzzcocks. After playing that, the Cone chose other Buzzcocks songs and similarly fast-paced punk rock acts.

But in a pleasant twist, the Cone went in a different direction after a while. It slowed down, just as the party did, and played ephemeral sounds by Iceland's Sigur Ros and electronic music by Neon Indian and Washed Out. My indie-music-loving guests loved that.

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— A TYPICAL WEEKDAY

My weekday mornings usually start with WNYC. After a while, the Cone knew to play that as soon as I pressed "play" in the mornings.

After work one day, I again put on "What Do I Get?" by the Buzzcocks. The Cone then launched into fiery "riot grrrl" legends Bikini Kill and would have probably kept going, but I decided I was ready for something mellow.

A couple of big spins of the dial sent us on a nostalgic turn. The Cone started with "Comin' Home Baby" by Mel Torme, followed by "Manana" by Peggy Lee (from 1950). Next up was "Fever" by Sarah Vaughan, now perhaps better known for Madonna's version. I later got "Mambo Italiano" by Rosemary Clooney, a song I've heard many times in Italian restaurants but never thought to listen to at home. I felt like dancing in an old-timey movie.

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— LEARNING

The Cone learns what you like and dislike by keeping track of the songs you skip or play all the way through and even whether you turn the volume up and down. This is more sophisticated than the Pandora music service, for example, as that lets you like and dislike songs but doesn't get smarter over time.

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— WISH LIST

It would be nice if I could tell it what I'm doing or how I'm feeling, as in "I'm cleaning the bathroom" or "I ran into my ex today; cheer me up." If the Cone could tell the weather, it might also adjust tunes for a sad rainy day or a crisp winter morning, perhaps motivating me to get out of bed when it's still dark outside.

I also wish I could share the Cone with roommates, perhaps through voice recognition or separate profiles.

Nonetheless, the Cone has grown on me. After some initial misunderstandings, we've become good friends.