Gadget Lust: Can You Wrap Your Head—and Ears—Around a 'Thinking Music Player'?

The new Wi-Fi-powered Aether Cone. Aether

Smart technology provides many answers, and too many questions: Do we get stupider as it gets wiser to our ways? Does artificial intelligence make us authentically dim-witted? And as we consign more of our choices to algorithms, does our much-cherished free will fly out the window? I don't have a good answer to these conundrums, but I do think "Mr. Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson, is shifting uncomfortably in his crypt right about now.

Like Isaac Hayes sang about detective John Shaft many cinematic moons ago, I'm talking about the new Wi-Fi-powered Aether Cone, $399, a combination speaker/playlist curator (the company calls it a "thinking music player") that purports to know your musical taste as well as you do, if not better. Why haul a separate piece of hardware around the house when the handsomely designed Cone knows what, when and even where you like to listen? Set it down, give its dial a spin and break out the guacamole and chips.

First things first: The 3-pound Cone sounds splendid. Its 20-watt amplifier, 3-inch woofer and dual tweeters provide a rich and loud-enough signal to fill a good-sized room, yet its footprint is dainty enough to rest on a nightstand. Second, you have to have some Apple gear around to run it, either an iOS7 device or a Mac computer running 10.9 or later. Once those are fired up, Cone can stream music from your Rdio Unlimited account, podcasts via Stitcher or music from your very own iTunes library using Apple's AirPlay. Android users, stay tuned. Your time—and tunes—will come.

Here comes the futuristic fun part: Not only is the Cone's magic dial able to switch genres or songs with a wee twist, you can also speak to the gadget. Its voice recognition software will then do its level best to deliver the Kinks and not Leon Spinks (speak clearly and concisely!). A color-coded system on the LED ring offers real-time feedback, indicating network status or a match for your request. And of course there's a "like" or "dislike" display where you can register your preferences with the tap of a finger.

In addition, this conical musical butler makes like the NSA and tracks your movements around the mansion using a built-in accelerometer—it will thus know that you prefer Howard Stern at daybreak in the kitchen and Miles Davis in the man-cave after supper. Or if you're feeling daring, give the dial a full spin and it will surprise you with a random selection. If that means the Ramones while the in-laws are over, don't hate! Cone didn't know they were in the house.

Cone also looks cool, a copper-coated cousin to early phonographs that you will want to Instagram with your dog perched next to it, as in the RCA logo. And the free downloadable iOS app allows you to control the rig from your smart device, choosing music, voting yea or nay, and changing EQ and volume settings.

Cone, like an old pal, will remember all of your favorite things and get ever smarter as time goes on. Think of it as a personal home DJ without the impossibly hip hairdo and designer shades.