The embattled music recording industry is praying that subscription streaming services are the antidote to declining music sales. Consumers now get unlimited access to a vast catalog of songs for a recurring monthly fee. Instead of buying each and every song, you rent all the songs for around $10 a month.
It's a decent solution, but it's still hard for casual fans to discover new music. And these services are largely buoyed by passionate users who consider the monthly fee a deal.
One of the newest attempts to expand the appeal of streaming music comes from the company Aether, which recently released a wireless speaker called Cone that does the heavy lifting of finding songs.
Instead of listeners deciding what to play, the speaker algorithmically decides what they (hopefully) want to hear. The speaker's current source is the service Rdio; it uses your streaming history to figure out what you like. More sources, presumably like Spotify, are said to be on the way.
"One of streaming music's biggest opportunities — and one of our team's major focal points — is to leverage the massive amounts of data out there in order to make the choice of 'what do I want to listen to now' much simpler," Aether CEO Duncan Lambsaid in an interview. "Once that happens and the notion of accessing 25 million tracks becomes more digestible, I think subscription services will see even more rapid growth than they already are."
Beyond the smart software, the hardware is a compelling part of this new speaker. There's a ring around the front that acts as a dial. Turn it one click to skip to the next track, or spin it further to get a completely different tune.
Cone comes with a battery that makes it easy to move the speaker from room to room. Its mobility is also incorporated with the software — Cone can detect how far away it is from the wireless router, and will play different music based on what room it's in. So if you mostly listen to dance music in the living room and classical music in the bedroom, the speaker can adjust accordingly.
Cone isn't alone in this space, of course. It's going up against the reigning wireless speaker, Sonos, which takes a different approach to the content side of the equation. Instead of the speaker deciding what you will hear, the company is trying to give users as many music or audio content options as possible.
Aether is betting that model gives consumers too much choice.
"Music streaming services are amazing — Rdio, one of our initial partners, offers over 25 million tracks to choose from," Lamb said. "It's the choice and depth of selection that can actually make listening to music quite difficult when you don't know what exactly you want to listen to, but you know you want to hear something nice for the moment."
Still, Cone has some issues. The idea is that when you get home from work, you can just hit Cone's center play button and it will start playing music. This assumes that people have a problem with taking out their phone to hit play on their configured Pandora station.
Furthermore, couldn't any wireless speaker be set to a streaming service and play music based on a listener's musical tastes? In my initial testing of the speaker, the recommendation engine worked fine, but not any better than what's currently on the market.
It's a novel approach to blend a learning algorithm and a wireless speaker, but Cone doesn't have the former down quite yet. An intelligent speaker priced at $399 needs to deliver on everything it advertises — and probably more.