Top 11 CD Decks: Pro DJ to Bedroom DJ

What are the top CD Players on the market? Well, there is no doubt that Pioneer is the leading brand for high-end audio and DJ products, and their products are widely used in DJ booths around the world. Pioneer CDJ and DJM (mixer) has become standard setup at nightclubs, so I would suggest that you look into them first, and if you can finance them, then great. If not, look at the other options.

Let’s narrow down the list of DJ equipment, and start from high-end equipment all the way down to beginners’ models. Prices range from $1600 (non-MSRP) down to $140 at the time of publishing this post. However, the guide will give you a sense for the “order” of the products in which I believe would be industry standard. In other words, you will never see a pair of Stanton or KAM players in a professional DJ setup. Nevertheless, they are a good substitute for the Pioneer and will work fine for a beginner, especially if you want to learn beatmatching and transition techniques. They will allow the flexibility of practicing various skills that can easily be “transferred” and adapted to any high-end disc jockey gear, such as the Pioneer CDJ Multiplayers.

Yes, it’s the mothership. The all singing, all dancing top of the range model from Pioneer. Key features include the illuminated tension adjustable jog wheel, the needle search function (which allows you to select any part of the tracks waveform in a matter of seconds, eliminating the need for time consuming search manoeuvres) and a 6.1 inch full colour screen. You can prepare your sets adding cue points in RekordBox, then activate them from any of the hot cue functions on up to four connected CDJs via one single USB or SM card input through the Link setup. Another nifty feature is that the CDJ-2000 allows you to save the history of any DJ set loading it back into Rekordbox as a playlist. Combine this with the awe inspiring effects capabilities of the DJM-2000 and you really do have the most powerful DJ set up in history. The ability to use the CDJ-2000 as a MIDI controller for use with pretty much any DJ software, makes Pioneer’s flagship player virtually futureproof, and it won’t be long before all nightclubs and serious DJ’s will don a pair of these as part of their setup.

The Pioneer CDJ-900 multi player has many range-topping features, including playback from various different music sources, such as CD and USB storage devices. Pioneer’s music database management software Rekordbox is also included, which allows DJs to prepare more trickery before their performance and opening the door to tools such as Quantize for perfect loops every time. DJs can then export data to a USB device to access vast libraries of music files and perform live without the need for extra equipment or any inconvenient rewiring in the club. The CDJ-900 player features 4-beat loop. When a 1, 2, 4 or 8 Auto Beat Loop button is pressed, the function automatically finds the beat segments from that point in time, making it simple to play a precisely timed loop. To expand the creative looping options available to DJs, the Pioneer CDJ-900 multi player is capable of 10 different variations of loop, right down to 1/16th of a beat. By holding down the Beat Select button, a 1/3 off-beat looping mode is activated which creates new effect possibilities when used in conjunction with Slip mode. The new Slip button lets DJs perform such tricks as looping, reversing or scratching of music without losing the flow or even a beat. The music continues to play, muted and returns when the hand leaves the platter.

This is Pioneer’s mid-price range model. It’s probably best to label this the Technics 1200 of its range, due to the fact that it’s extremely stable, will seldom let you down, has only the bare essential features and boasts a fantastic classic silver design. The negative points are that it has no quantised looping, the jog wheel tension cannot be adjusted, there’s no LINK function (as with the other next generation CDJs) and in order to gain access to a track’s waveform it must be imported first from Rekordbox. Having said this, the MIDI implementation works very well, the soundcard is spot on and if you want no-nonsense everyday hardware performance with the magic P word written down the side, then these are the decks for you. For an extra £300 or so the CDJ-900 has all the previously mentioned features plus “Slip Mode” which, when activated, silently continues song playback during a loop, reverse or scratch and continues audible playback at the exact time when the user ends the loop, reverse or scratch. Very nice.

If you buy a CDJ-350 on its own you’ll get a reliable, smaller, stripped-back version of Pioneer’s new top of the range models. If you’re used to Pioneer’s other CDJs you’ll have no problem adapting to to the 350 with its cute and compact appearance marking it as a desirable product for bedroom DJs. You can loop and hot cue with it, it’ll read your memory stick and has a BPM lock. It’s fully integrated with Pioneer’s RekordBox music management software and has the added bonus of being able to communicate via MIDI. The real magic of the unit comes into play when you hook it up with a DJM-350 mixer and another CDJ which, when combined with RekordBox, gives you an immensely powerful DJ setup combining the might of Pioneer’s effects, a database of your entire music collection with the ability to record mixes straight to your memory stick in high quality .wav format without the aid of a laptop or an external recording device. Combined with Pioneer’s impressive hardware performance, rather than an expensive bedroom set-up let’s call it a professional system for those of us with budget or space restrictions. Also available in white.

The Denon DN-S3700 is the most fun to operate out of our 10 test units and should be treated as more of a musical instrument than a professional CD player. It’s solid with brushed aluminium bevelled corners and its key USP is the 9″ spinning turntable platter powered by 12 pole direct drive motor which has an even higher torque than the Technics 1200 deck! What’s more is that it actually feels like you’re mixing with vinyl, handling in much the same way as any of the top spec turntables on offer. If this isn’t your bag then don’t despair – the platter will perform like a jog wheel at the flick of a switch. You can really push your turntablism skills to the limit with either the BPM assisted or manual looping system, the three hot cue buttons, not to mention the flanger, filters (high, mid and low) and the fantastic echo loop. You’ve also got two different types of reverse plus a fully programmable brake. If it’s precision mixing you’re after then the pitch-control won’t let you down with its ample 100mm long pitch slider which can be calibrated up to +/- 100 per cent, with key adjust so that those vocals don’t go all chipmunks on you. The display is more than adequate and you can drag up the waveform, rename data (with the aid of an attached PS2 keyboard or via the internal character input mode) saving all your loop and player settings to memory, USB stick or attached laptop. The DN-S3700 ships with the Denon DJ music manager software which allows you to build a database of your tracks, analyzing the details of key musical characteristics which will be read by the player. On top of all this all the controls can send and receive MIDI data, it has a built-in soundcard and sampler, and aside from the fact that it looks the shizz it also feels like a serious piece of kit unlike some of its plastic lunchbox counterparts.

This is by far the most stylish entry to our ten best series. The rubberised heavy duty plastic case oozes class and durability from the first touch and you can see that methodical German engineering has been in effect through the intuitive and symmetrical placing of the controls. The RMP 3 also happens to be the most uncomplicated unit that we’ve had on the block this month. It will read from your memory stick or other external USB storage device, toggling seamlessly between the two with the punch of a button. The effects (Filter, Skid, Echo, Flanger, Trans, Phase, Pan, Break) are located below the main screen, and like many players of the moment can be modulated by the jog wheel with the quick touch of the centrally placed hold button assigning it or putting it back to scratch/cue mode. You can select the parameter with the X/Y ratio keys on either side of the screen, meaning that your hand will never have to travel more than a couple of centimeters for those important tweaks and fills, plus they can be synced to the BPM. Another very juicy feature is the four fully pitchable five-second sample banks which can be triggered by their own pads. You’ve got all the usual essentials included that you’d expect from any contemporary CD deck; one particularly professional addition is the sprung track search encoder, making for incredibly quick navigation of your music. All control elements are MIDI compatible (45 buttons, one turning knob, one push encoder, one fader and one jog wheel) with double assignment available via the shift function and MIDI preset memory to boot. Exceptional performance and value for money. Recommended.

Coming in with one of the most attractive price tags, Gemini’s CDJ-600 is still a contender in a race that is largely populated with units that boast feature lists down to the ground. At 279.4 x 298.45 x 114.3 mm it’s not the most streamlined of creatures – although it feels sturdy enough – and a quick glance at the box reassures us that it has an anti-shock mechanism fitted which uses the RAM buffer memory. Boot up time isn’t quite as snappy as other (expensive) models, although it reads your CD or memory stick quickly enough with a nice rubberized push rotary encoder for quick file/folder navigation. Although you’ve got no waveform display, the LCD screen is big and bright enough, displaying everything you’ll need for comfortable operation. The layout is of the classic design so all CD jocks will be familiar with the positioning of the key controls and the jog wheel is a very close imitation of Pioneer’s. In practice the CDJ-600 provides a very practical yet no frills work-flow. The pitch control is ample, you can cue tracks in the usual manner and scratch once you’ve compensated for the slightly slower pick up time which you’ll hardly notice with everyday beat mixing. There’s also a loop and reloop feature which work as they should and the player will operate in single, continuous and repeat play modes. There’s absolutely nothing amateur about the CDJ-600 – it’s merely just a stripped back model offering basic functionality that does everything it says on the tin with 9/10 performance.

This is the best bang for your buck if you’re on a budget. We wouldn’t advise you to go for one if you’re after club installation, as the tray loading system won’t survive the punishment it will doubtlessly undergo in a working environment. For domestic use though, you can’t go wrong. The design is current, the blue backlit screen looks seriously cool and the jog wheel feels sturdy. You’ve got three hot cue buttons, reloop and four effects (flanger, filter, echo and reverse) that sound surprisingly pro. These are great to use as the jog wheel controls their parameter when selected, allowing for some on the fly manoeuvres. The pitch control slider feels tight, with audio formats having a range of up to 100 per cent, although MP3s can only be manipulated to +/- 16. The transport and pitch bend buttons don’t cause us any concern either, looking and feeling more than durable. Flip the KCD400 round and you’ll find RCA analogue outputs plus a digital output which will come in handy for recording. Then there’s ‘faderstart’ and relay mini jack outputs for remote control via a Kam mixer or another KCD400. Like a lot of the lower priced models the scratch cueing doesn’t have the sharpest response and What Hifi? readers will undoubtedly have a thing or two to say about the sound quality (which again seemed more than adequate). With this aside the overall performance of the player surpassed our expectations, and at this price with these features who cares anyway?

Another feature packed budget to mid-price model, the Numark NDX800 fits into the same category performance-wise as the Stanton and Reloop units at a greatly reduced cost. It will read your memory stick, yet reliably switching source isn’t just the quick toggle of a switch – it involves a look at the screen and the twist of a rotary. The effects are definitely useable and Numark have tried a deeply individual method of execution which involves selecting each effect with a sprung joystick style switch before adjusting the wet/dry level with a fader and changing the paramenter with a knob. You do get used to it after a while, but it can leave your fingers in a bit of a knot. The jog wheel feels fine and is surrounded by an illuminated ring that acts as a position display. The pitch control is smooth and the bend keys responsive. As expected with a machine of this price range, cueing, mixing, scratching and tweaking your mix when compared to the Reloop’s could be likened to the driving experience between a Volkswagen and an Audi; similar in many ways but undeniably smoother in the latter. Your loop, hot cue and sampler modes are easy to toggle between with three buttons to launch your creations. It’s optimized for Virtual DJ and Traktor, but thanks to MIDI it will work in conjunction with just about anything. A workhorse deck with a decent price.

Stanton’s approach of giving us professionally spec’d products at an affordable price is very noble in these economically challenging times. The C324 will undoubtedly lodge a thorn in Pioneer’s side for this very reason, with many people opting for one of these bad boys rather than reaching for one of the lower spec’d CDJs. This player looks and feels similar to the CDJ-800, with much of the same functionality plus the addition of seven premium beat synchronized digital effects namely filter, auto filter, echo, phaser, flanger, transform and pan. There are four trigger pads below the jog wheel for beat synchronized sampling and looping with cue memory. You can trim or expand your loops as you please, the resultant performance being similar to that of an MPC2000. The pitch control goes up to +/- 100 per cent and although it didn’t feel quite as solid as the Pioneer it certainly performed as expected. The jog wheel can be used in vinyl or CD mode, both of which are snappy yet slightly over-responsive; however you can calibrate it to suit your needs, just be sure to treat it with a bit more respect than a CDJ when adjusting the mix hands on. The overall frequency response is decent, searching is nice and quick and the reverse function is one of the swiftest you’ll find. The case and buttons will certainly be robust enough for club use and if there was a parking space for a USB stick then it would truly give the competition a run for its money.

Vestax’s entry to our ten best will undoubtedly have its fans due to their strong branding and impressive contribution to the advancement of DJ technology. Out of the box it does look a little dated in design, with the pitch control feeling loose and the jog wheel not being the smoothest of rides. Importantly, the road test proves that it actually handles very well – the jog wheel is responsive in scratch, cue or effects modulation modes and if you’re still not sold, for the price of a night out you can pick yourself up a Tascam TTM1 to retrofit onto your Vestax PDX vinyl turntable which will seamlessly control your CDX 05. It’s got an eight second sampler and the BPM or manually synchronised flange, delay and filter (two different choices) effects certainly don’t disappoint with multiple parameter modulation (although it would be nice if you could use more than one simultaneously). Another impressive feature is the “Disc Memory” which recalls via TOC the disc ID, cue point, loop point, break, master tempo, play mode and tap value if the disc has been played before. It’s got the industry standard three hot cue buttons with reloop, and the soft rubber buttons will take a fair bit of abuse without packing up or hurting your fingers. It’s got a nice crisp sound to it, and although it doesn’t immediately look the most robust we’ve seen, it follows suit with the turntable range being made of some space-age uber-super strong but light plastic that’ll probably guarantee you at least 10 years use.