When Samsung came out with the K5 in 2006, we were stoked to see an MP3 player with an unusual design trait: a nifty built-in speaker that flipped out from behind the device and propped the player up for optimal listening. It helped, too, that the K5 offered plentiful features and stellar audio quality, though we weren't so keen on the super thick girth required to accommodate the speaker. Enter the S5, the K5's slimmer successor that adds built-in Bluetooth to the mix. While the S5 suffers from a few minor drawbacks such as a small screen and proprietary video support, it's quite the worthy option for those with a penchant for top-notch audio quality and the ability to share tunes on the fly.
Design and interface
Of course, you're going to have to shell out just a bit more for the S5 than you would for its competitors. The 2GB version lists for $119.99, while the 4GB model sells for $159.99 (by comparison, the 4GB Creative Zen goes lists at $129.99). Samsung offers both black and white versions of the player on its site, but black was the only color we could find for sale elsewhere. In the standard MP3 player position, the overall design of the S5 is boxy (it measures 3.8 inches by 1.8 inches by 0.6 inch), though the shiny face and lack of real buttons gives it a sleek look. The controls don't become apparent until you turn the player on, which is when six "keys" light up. There are four directional arrows surrounding a central play/pause/select dot as well as contextual menu and back keys.
Once you get used to the lack of tactile controls, navigating the S5 is a breeze, and the graphically intense interface makes it fun as well. Like the K5, the top menu of this player features morphing dot icons representing the functions (headphones for music, an old school radio for FM tuner, and so on). Alternatively, you can choose a more standard interface with a photo of your choosing as the wallpaper. Once you delve down into the music submenu, tracks are navigable by artist, album, playlist, and so on. (You may also choose to browse by folder.) Samsung also offers a completely separate menu for Datacasts, which are your automatically updated RSS feeds. Sadly, there is no integrated podcast support.
Speaker and more features
The Samsung S5 has just about every other feature in the book, including the super nifty slide-out speaker. Let's face it: it's just more fun to share tunes from something that actually looks like a portable speaker, rather than an MP3 player with two tiny ports on the back. The speaker is silver and decked out in circular dots, and it props the player up at a handy angle. The built-in alarm clock further augments its usefulness: leave the speaker open, and you can be awake to a song of your choice.
Additional features include photo and video support, although the 1.8-inch screen is really too small for enjoy watching videos on. Plus, the S5 only supports Samsung's proprietary SVI format for video. On the plus side, JPEG pictures look bright and crisp, and you can view them while listening to music. On the audio side, the S5 can play MP3, AAC, and WMA, including on-the-go subscription tracks from services such as Rhapsody. If you get tired of your content, you can switch over to the FM radio, which has an autoscan function, 30 preset slots, as well as a recording feature. There's also a built-in mic, which can be used to make voice recordings but also comes in handy when you pair the S5 with a Bluetooth headset. The player supports stereo Bluetooth, so you can pair it with wireless headphones and a Bluetooth-capable cell phone.
An MP3 player for picky listeners
If we could say only one thing about the Samsung S5, it's that the device is clearly an audio enthusiast's MP3 player, although we lament that lack of support for any lossless codecs. Still, the inclusion of multiple sound enhancement options--Bass Boost, 3D Surround, multiple EQ presets/sound effects, and a nine-band user EQ--make it easy to fine-tune audio to your exact specifications. Even through the included earbuds, which has a design that provides a more secure and comfortable fit, the S5 sounds very good. Swap in some high-end earphones (the Shure SE310, for example) and you're really in for stellar sound. We enjoyed a mini marathon of new wave music and were in heaven. The hi-hats in David Bowie's "Fame" and Tears for Fears' "Sowing the Seeds of Love" were crisp and sparkly, and the synth guitar in The Police's "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" was warm and encompassing. Bass is nice, tight, and thumping without overpowering the songs. All in all, we were quite taken with the balance and loveliness of the sound across all genres.
Don't expect that same experience from the built-in speaker. It doesn't really get that loud. Also, tunes definitely sound a bit tinny and bright. Still, the lack of any distortion is certainly impressive. The rated battery life of 24 hours goes to show that the size shaved off for the S5 was likely in that area--the K5 was rated for 30 hours and tested about 32 hours. Still, 24 hours isn't bad, and the five-hour rating for the speaker should be plenty as well. Rated video battery life is average at four hours, but who wants to watch video on that tiny screen anyway?