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The Reductive Reasoning Behind Designing the Aether Cone

12.01.14 | By
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The Aether Cone is a design solution formulated by way of subtraction, a wireless speaker defined just as much by what it doesn’t have as much as what it offers. It’s also one of the more unique and eye-catching designs in the category, the contrast black with copper is a magnet for design-minded admirers (and now also in white and silver).

We’ve enjoyed a test unit for several weeks, quickly learning the Cone’s novel and minimalist front ring interface (a turn to the left to replay, right to skip, tap to pause) which eschews touch UI for tactile interaction, and observing our Cone quietly and diligently learning our musical preferences like an audio version of TiVo. The Cone by Aether is also always listening, with voice command ready to play a favorite song or to switch to integrated NPR or BBC streaming programming, with our iTunes library accessible using Airplay from our desktop or streaming Rdio from the Aether app. Eventually the Aether Cone evolves into the physical embodiment of an extremely personal radio station tailored to a user’s specific listening habits; just turn it on and it will play everything you like.

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Turning the Cone’s front face to the left or right can rewind or skip songs, but we primarily controlled the 3″ woofer, dual tweeters and 20 watt amplifier powered speaker via app or Airplay.

But back to that shape. In some ways the Cone takes one step back to leap two steps forward in the competitive wireless speakers category. Sculpting away the extraneous material, the designers were left with a cone, a shape which they further stretched and softened to coax a stable form to sit on any surface and provide portability around the home (a Li-ion battery within allows the Cone up to 8 hours of playback). Aether’s Head of Industrial Design Casper Asumussen and Principal Industrial Designer Chad Harber walked us through their team’s explorative process of reductive design…

Aether's Head of Industrial Design, Casper Asmussen (left) and Principal Industrial Designer Chad Harber (right).

Aether’s Head of Industrial Design, Casper Asmussen (left) and Principal Industrial Designer Chad Harber (right).

Was the Aether Cone always going to be a cone, or did the speaker’s shape come out of a longer dialogue between design and engineering?

Casper Asmussen, Head of Industrial Design at Aether: We really tried to break the norm of what a speaker this powerful looks like. We intentionally wanted it less masculine, less technical and more harmonious and integrated into people’s homes and lives. It didn’t start out as a cone, but our explorative and multi-disciplinary approach led us there. Cone’s profile is, in essence, the icon of amplification, and the conical shape is also great for acoustics – it’s actually one of the most optimal for perfect sound. The circular front allowed us to blend its primary interaction into the main form in a simple and seamless way.

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How many prototypes did your team have to go through before eventually settling on the stable cone design we see now?

Chad Harber, Principal Industrial Designer at Aether: Many. Once we settled on the cone shape as the primary direction, we made dozens of models, each building upon the learnings from the previous. For example, balancing the size of the dial so that it is comfortable enough to spin while maintaining substantial acoustic volume was a delicate balance between user experience and performance. Cone was also the first physical manifestation of our brand, so many of the models were used to explore our design language reflecting our core philosophy. We also used models to perfect how we stabilized Cone from rolling and vibrating.

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Could your team share any inspirations that helped shape the Cone design, whether it be from a materials, software, or aesthetic perspective?

Casper: With Cone, we initially drew inspiration from both furniture and tableware as well as classic hi-fi decks and their precision details. We wanted to dress the amazing technology in a non-technical and interiors-friendly outside, blending into your home rather than your old hi-fi stack. We wanted to create a speaker with an approachable gesture and character while also spreading sound at an optimal angle. Also, we intentionally softened the shape so that it invited you to pick it up or spin the dial. Similarly, the metal back cap was used to create structure and heat deflection while visually reflecting its environment to gently fit into your home.

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The Cone seems to be both a functional and aesthetic embodiment of simplicity. Could you tell us about the challenges of reducing controls/features down to just a few buttons and gestures?

Chad: It’s always incredibly complex to make something extremely simple. We had to strictly focus on the actual problem we were solving, disregarding other temptations and opportunities. In the case of Cone, we really wanted to make listening to music more direct, enjoyable and intelligent. That promise, in its purest form, really doesn’t need much. We basically just need a means of teaching Cone what you like and a trigger for voice requests, and if you’re still left with the need for visual or detailed info, then you can pull out your phone or tablet. We didn’t want to build in redundant controls or complex interactions. We reduced all parts and details to their simplest sum and instead focused on perfecting its essence.

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Casper: In other words, our ambition was to reduce the on-device UI to what you really need while clearly separating the functions for their respective purposes. Whether it’s finding new, curated music through the turning motion of the dial (referencing the classic knob on a radio), the direct tap to play or request a song on the front, or even pull out your phone for more traditional control.

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Were there any features in this first Cone that couldn’t be incorporated, but you hope to include in the future?

Chad: While we can’t reveal any specifics, we believe we’ve fulfilled the vision and promise we set out to realize with Cone and our mission to make music simple continues.

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Special thanks to Casper Asumussen, Chad Harber, and the team at Aether.

Gregory Han is Tech Editor of Design Milk. A Los Angeles native with a profound love and curiosity for design, hiking, tide pools, and road trips, a selection of his adventures and musings can be found at gregoryhan.com.