Review: This Hi-Fi Wireless Speaker Has a Portable Volume Dial (And It’s Brilliant)
The Samsung VL5 ($400) and the Samsung VL3 ($250) are the company’s newest wireless speakers that can play music over Bluetooth or your home’s wi-fi network. Both speakers have a retro design and come with a movable volume dial, which can magnetically stick to any metal surface, including most places on the speaker. The speakers work with Samsung’s SmartThings app, meaning you can integrate them with other compatible wi-fi speakers in a multi-room system. As for differences, the VL3 is essentially just a smaller, square-shaped version of the VL5. Both speakers were announced at CES 2018 and are available for purchase.
Note: We did not test the smaller and more affordable Samsung VL3; we tested only the Samsung VL5 speaker.
The Good: The Samsung VL5 has three woofers and dual tweeters and it’s able to deliver accurate audio with punchy bass. The speaker’s design is stark; it’s modern and minimalist, yet still has a vintage vibe that makes it look like it’s from the 70s. The speaker can be used as a traditional Bluetooth speaker or put in a multi-room setup with other wi-fi speakers that are compatible with Samsung’s SmartThings app (learn more here). All things considered, the movable volume dial is really the star feature that sets the Samsung VL5 apart. It has a great “knob feel” that analog lovers will adore. Also, you can place the dial anywhere on the speaker or bring it next to you at your desk; as long as it’s within Bluetooth range of the speaker, it’ll change the volume and play/pause tracks.
Who They’re For: While the Samsung SmartThings app is available on iOS, I feel like this is a speaker that people with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone will find easier to use. Also, if they have other SmartThings-compatible devices, they can group the speaker with those devices in smart “scenes” and have them all work together.
Watch Out For: Both Samsung’s SmartThings app and playing music over wi-fi in general isn’t as smooth as I would’ve hoped. The app doesn’t work with a number of popular music services, such as Spotify or Tidal, either. For these reasons, I primarily used the VL5 as a Bluetooth speaker, which was straightforward enough to connect. The battery on the volume dial could be better.
Alternatives: For other wi-fi speakers that work with Samsung’s SmartThings, you can get any of Bose’s SoundTouch series of speakers: the SoundTouch 10 ($179+), SoundTouch 20 ($349) or SoundTouch 30 ($499). For a similar price and sound quality, yet with a built-in voice assistant, you can purchase the Google Home Max ($399).
Review: It’s worth remembering that Samsung has been a fixture in the home theater market, making great TVs and soundbars for years. And even though it’s not as experienced in making wireless speakers as companies like Bose or Sonos, Samsung is no slouch when it comes to great audio. The company bought Harman in 2017, acquiring its subsidiary audio companies (such as JBL, AKG, Harman Kardon and Mark Levinson) and all their expertise in the process. And in terms of sound quality, the Samsung VL5 ($400) definitely sounds like what you’d expect from those higher-end audio companies.
Over the last several weeks, the Samsung VL5 speaker has been the primary music-playing source in our office, taking the place of a Sonos system comprised of Play:1 and a Sonos One speakers. I’ve almost exclusively played music over Bluetooth because, even though the Samsung VL5 has built-in wi-fi and can operate as a multi-room speaker, the fact that the Samsung SmartThings app isn’t compatible with popular music services like, Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal meant that listening to music over Bluetooth was the only realistic option for me. That said, it wasn’t a problem. The music sounded great and it was simple to stream.
Audio quality is very good, but as I mentioned before, the striking feature on the Samsung VL5 speaker is its wonderful volume dial. For anybody who appreciates a good analog dial, such as the ones on any of Naim’s multi-room speakers, you’ll know the value of a great “knob feel.” Beyond aesthetics, the volume dial is really wonderful because of the way it works. You can slowly and accurately increase or lower the volume almost one decibel at a time and the knob makes this beautiful clicking noise like you’re reeling in a big fish. It’s tough to describe, but it’s great.
The volume dial is also movable. You can physically take it off the speaker and magnetically place it on any metal surface — as long as it’s within Bluetooth range, you’ll be able to adjust the volume. That said, the volume knob has a few modern tricks up its sleeve. Not only can you play/pause the audio by clicking its center, but the dial has a built-in microphone so you can access your phone’s voice assistant (if your phone is connected). Just hold down the button in the center of the dial and you can call friends or ask the voice assistant questions, like “What’s the weather?” and “Who plays in the World Cup today?”
Verdict: The Samsung VL5 isn’t going to be for everybody, mainly because it requires you to use the Samsung SmartThings app and you probably need to be well-versed in Samsung’s ecosystem in order to use it as a multi-room speaker. Basically, this won’t be the first-choice speaker for those with iPhones or non-Samsung Android smartphones. However, it’s a beautiful speaker with one of the best and most unique volume dials I’ve ever come across. And for a $400 speaker, it sounds just as good (if not better) than most of its competitors. If you’re looking for a unique speaker that’s well-designed and sounds pretty great, the Samsung VL5 is a pretty stellar option.
What Others Are Saying:
• “If sound quality is as important as design, however, there’s not much else at the price. In terms of sound quality and features, Samsung’s speakers would likely be going up against higher-end smart speakers, like the Google Home Max or the HomePod, which cost $400 and $350 respectively. While it isn’t quite as simple to use voice assistants on the VL550—it’s just amplifying the assistant that’s in your connected device—at least the speaker isn’t something that would only look appropriate in the retro-futuristic living room of The Jetsons.” — Mike Murphy, Quartz
Drivers: three woofers, two tweeters
Connectivity: Bluetooth, wi-fi, Ethernet, 3.5mm jack
App: Samsung Smartthings
Key feature: movable volume dial with terrific “knob feel”
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