The segue with the silver tongue
CD player 3-way test
Denon, Pioneer, Vestax lock lasers
DJs' attachment to vinyl is such that CD has struggled to get a foothold. But, as Magnus Schofield discovers, a new generation of advanced professional machines could be about to tip the scales in favour of the silver disc...
It's been a long, hard, and at times bloody battle, yet pockets of resistance remain to the CD revolution. The habits of DJs die particularly hard. Cueing or scratching a track from CD takes a faith in technology which the manual techniques of vinyl do not demand. And however swiftly the laser of a CD player can access a track, it's never as reassuring as sinking that needle into hand-tooled, virgin black wax.
Nor is every DJ ready to restock their entire record collection, or indeed able to if they're operating in a specialist field. And for as long as the dance market remains committed to the 12" format, there's not much incentive for them to, either. The most they'll want to invest is maybe £100-200 for a 'Discman'-type player, which combines portability with a basic level of shock absorption.
CD as a DJing medium has therefore been confined to mainstream clubs, and to newcomers with no wish to be 'backwards compatible' with the vinyl era. The humblest of domestic CD machines offers looping and skipping functions, whose limitations can be overcome with a bit of imagination. And shackling a pair of them through a budget mixer can leave funds for PA gear or transport boxes.
With their delicate tonearms and laggardly start speeds, domestic record decks are scarcely serviceable in DJ applications. The market has been left to Technics, whose SL1200 deck rapidly became a DJ fetish, with its well-damped, weighty chassis and acceleration rate of 0-45 in a quarter turn. Only recently has it begun to face any serious competition.
Until now, the technical possibilities of CD have seemed limited. The difference between domestic and professional machines has been difficult to justify on the basis of features alone. At best you could expect a smoother looping function or a modest degree of pitch control. Various devices might be incorporated to make cueing easier or more accurate. A rambling intro can be excised as easily as a rambling outro, enabling you to cut in instantly, without the lacklustre fade-in or ugly start-up noise of vinyl. But these options owe more to CD's inherent qualities, and are not beyond the wit of cheaper models. For most DJs, the index of pro-CD machines' success has lain more in their ease of use and build quality.
Until such time as CD gets a stranglehold on the DJ market, players will come in an assortment of shapes and formats. In part this is due to the differing backgrounds of the manufacturers involved, and the different applications their machines are intended for. Strictly speaking, these three machines aren't directly comparable. But the collection does serve to illustrate the current state of the pro-CD art.
Pioneer, with a background in multiple-CD 'jukeboxes' for the broadcast market and a parallel interest in LaserDisc video technology, have produced a highly individual beast in the CDJ500. If ever there was a CD player aiming to usurp the SL1200's crown as the club DJ's machine of choice, this is it. The cost, for a single-transport box, is high. But so is the level of innovation.
With a fine and growing reputation as builders of low-budget but far from low-spec hardware, Vestax are currently keeping both club and home-studio balls in the air. They have their own black-disc turntable up and coming, while at the studio end of things, a new range of affordable hard-disk recorders is set to complement an already highly-praised selection of cassette multitrackers. Their CD11 is not exactly revolutionary, but it offers twin transports for rather less than the cost of the (single) Pioneer.
Like Pioneer, Denon have substantial experience of the broadcast field and have been making a range of pro CD machines - including the DN2000F reviewed here - for a while now. They were one of the pioneering (sorry) forces behind the development of digital recording, and before that were well-known for their vinyl mastering and pressing expertise - giving them, perhaps, a unique credibility combination in the eyes of the average jock. Today they're also well-known in the studio field for their line of stereo cassette decks, whose emphasis on sturdy construction and fine engineering is carried over to the DN2000F and its stablemates.
The different styles of the three machines under review offer varying degrees of versatility, but none of them comes in a choice of package. Denon and Vestax have hedged their bets with machines that are both rackable and stackable, but the Pioneer is a stand-alone. It's conceivable this could restrict its appeal, but at least it's chunky and geometric, in impact-resistant plastic. Discs can be frisbeed into its toploading tray like coins into a motorway tollgate, reducing the loading process to a couple of seconds at most.
The disc tray and function keys are reasonably well-insulated from invasive liquids, with a bold multifunction display and generous supply of illuminated function keys. Unlike other machines you get a bold digital readout of percentage pitch-change, and on top of the usual timer modes there's an invaluable 'egg timer'-style graphic which shows your track ebbing away and even flashes a cueing alarm at zero-minus-three seconds.
There might be a steel chassis under the plastic case, but if the CDJ500 is to get the jocks drooling. Pioneer may have to beef up its professional aesthetic. On the other hand, its menu of features is formidable. The enormous central 'jog shuttle' wheel is adjacent to a long-throw pitch fader, and can be used to duplicate its function. The other machines offer similar dual controls, but the Pioneer has a trick up its sleeve. Hit the Master Tempo button, and you enjoy the unique facility of a ±12% tempo change which doesn't at the same time turn your vocalists into the Brothers Gibb (unless they already are - Ed). This fiendish 'time-stretching' is something studio samplers have been doing for some while, but this is the first time we've seen it on a CD player.
"The Pioneer's time stretching is a ground-breaking function which will dazzle the punters no end"
If I wanted to carp, I'd question why circuitry that's clever enough to isolate and modify a rhythm can't at the same time display its BPM - and even go on to obey a rate of your choosing. In conjunction with a programmable auto-changer, this might free DJs to spend more time at the bar.
Maybe it will come. In the meantime, time-stretching is a ground-breaking function which will dazzle the punters no end. Once you've mastered the flywheel, that is. Chunky and funky it may be, but a bit of ballast would have made all the difference, to give it some momentum of its own. As it is, it stops the moment you lift your finger. Nor is it easy to avoid exceeding the speed limit, whereupon the laser slips into fast-forward mode and screws up your slick segue.
Cueing is reasonably straightforward, requiring only the right interplay between Pause and Cue buttons. On the other hand, precision accuracy is well-nigh impossible. The time display may tantalise with 75th-second frames, but even the nimblest set of fingers would be lucky to get within a tenth of that. Whether this presents a practical problem depends on whether you want to use excerpts from sample CDs, or confine yourself to the integral looping function.
Pioneer have been clever enough to equip the looper with a memory - just enough to take up the slack as the laser travels back to its start point. Any more and we'd be halfway to a sampler, which isn't really the CDJ500's brief. Once again, it's a prototype facility which only needs beefing up a bit and we'd have a worldbeater on our hands. But with a bank of presets and attendant cueing facilities, I guess we'd also have a confusing machine. As it is, the looper's 0.7 second memory works remarkably well - as well as you can hit the start and end points of a rhythm. Used as it will be in real time, deciphering fragments of a break isn't such a problem. The finished loop is as seamless as any 16-bit sampler's.
The laser assembly is tightly sprung beneath its protective hatch, with most of the unit's damping provided by foam-based feet and rubberised washers between chassis and case.
It's a compromise, but it does the job. Shackling a pair of CDJ500s together is provided for electronically by a 'relay play' option, but not physically by any sort of modular racking system. On the other hand, three of them would probably fit quite snugly into the space taken up by a couple of old 1200s...
With its sandwich toaster-style twin platters, Vestax's CD11 looks a piece of serious kit. No messing about with temperamental eject mechanisms - just flip the lid and slap in another disc. It's a wrist action familiar to DJs the world over, rich in spectacle and tradition. Joystick pitch and search functions, bold LED readout, and all of it horizontally rack-mountable in a coffin case next to your mixer. A thoroughly sound concept.
If only it were so easy. Unusually for a Japanese corporation, Vestax's scrupulous research of DJ preferences has come a bit of a cropper at the production stage. The smoked plastic lids flip up and down swiftly enough, but they're centrally mounted on somewhat flimsy hinges. Even if the budget wouldn't stretch to heavier duty hardware, a second set would massively increase robustness.
And while the LED displays are fine for low-light settings, that's as far as the illumination goes. The joystick's obvious enough, and the red Play/Pause button is unmistakable, but I wouldn't go live with this machine before mastering the fiddly cueing procedure.
In the pursuit of speed and efficiency, none of these machines provide a Stop button as such. In the case of the power-assisted Pioneer and Denon, circuitry of this nature can always be incorporated into an Eject switch. Vestax don't offer this luxury. Instead, they suggest hitting a button marked 'Reset', whose normal function is to instruct the laser to scan a disc's contents. The result is more often than not a lengthy wait for the drive to grind to a hesitant stop, only to take off again under the misapprehension that it has some fresh contents. Why a 'fridge door' system of activating the laser could not be incorporated I do not understand. Pioneer have even refined this system to open and close a sub-hatch over the laser, protecting the user from the old Class 1 Type Radiation, not to mention the eye-popping spectacle of a confused laser. In practice, I can see users flipping the Vestax hatch in frustration and trying to anticipate the centrifugal effects. Some sort of slop tray to address this eventuality might have been an idea.
"For a unit that can only be mounted horizontally, the Vestax has an alarming number of apertures, most notably around the laser assembly and joystick"
On the subject of drinks, I wouldn't fancy pouring one over this machine. For a unit that can only be mounted horizontally, there are an alarming number of apertures, most notably around the laser assembly and joystick (which is at least replaceable). Although the drive is on a slightly raised plinth, it's particularly vulnerable during loading and unloading. And while the floating drive units are well-damped, the securing nuts necessary during transit aren't going to last long (unless you're very careful).
Now, I don't know whether logic is an objective truth; you'd have to take up the matter with a philosopher. All I know is the CD11's cueing procedure doesn't conform to my idea of it. Finding fault with the colour scheme or Gothic Script of the fascia might seem trivial, but logic of form and function are apt to go hand in hand. All the facilities are there - it's just they're not as obvious as they might have been.
Denon have refined their domestic CD machines into a rugged professional series, of which the DN2000F has become something of an 'industry standard'. It's identical in functions to its single-drive sibling, the DN1000F, but has been divided into separate drive and remote control units. Not only does this preserve the 3U, 19" rackmount proportions of each, it increases their versatility in both studio and live applications.
While the orthodox frontloading drive unit must be racked vertically, the shallow remote can be mounted faceup - next to a mixer, for instance. It's one of the few machines I'd trust in this posture; its rubberised function keys look ready for army manoeuvres, let alone misdirected cocktails. But far from launching heat-seeking missiles, their repertoire conforms to type. It's as if the facilities of this generation of machine have been dictated by the same chip.
Drinks are in short supply here at THE MIX, so I wasn't able to bench-test the corrosive effects of 80% proof alcohol on the DN2000's fascia. Nor would they hire me a Chieftain tank. But I'd wager a bob or two on the structural integrity of the chassis. Judging by the drive unit's prodigious weight, the concrete breeze-block principle of a spin dryer has been deployed. Simple, but effective. In a rack, I can't see the drive mistracking; even out of the rack it takes a hefty wallop.
Once again, pitch variation is limited to a modest ±8% with button or fader control: unlike the other machines it's only enabled by the press of a button. An LED indicates the facility is active and offers a modicum of protection from interference. More practicably, it can apply an instant across-the-board percentage pitch change, if that's your style. This field of operations is clearly demarcated inside a box, not even the smallest detail escaping the attention of Denon logicians.
In addition, there's a unique 'beat matching' facility. It can't match to external sources, only between its own drives. Anyway, I'm not entirely convinced: its compass is no wider than a standard ±8%, and nor does it seem clever enough to match to alternate beats, as when mixing The Prodigy into a Gregorian chant (that old dancefloor assburner - Ed), for example. Matching beats is one thing, but they need to be properly phased to complete the effect. For novices, though, it's a handy feature.
The backlit LCD readout is another model of simplicity. Beyond the 75ths-of-a-second counter, it doesn't score over a domestic machine for information, but at least it includes a choice between time elapsed and time remaining.
The single-play function is one of the few requiring a glance at the manual. I don't think I'd have stumbled on the trick of pressing two seemingly unrelated buttons on my own. But it's easy once you know how.
Where the Denon really comes into its own is in the cueing department. All the machines might chop up your tracks into bite-sized chunks, but they don't all serve them up so appetisingly. Nor can they locate the tastiest morsels so effortlessly, and reproduce them in such recognisable form. Each machine offers the same 'access window' of a 75th of a second, but this is not much practical help if all you're hearing is the sound of scrambled syllables. Denon's finely-tuned Search buttons let you search a frame at a time, and in such a way as to make the entry of an instrument or beginning of a line recognisable. Nor does this require a complicated process of pushing misleadingly-titled buttons in a confusing order. A straightforward Cue button blinks an LED when it's memorised your start point.
"All the machines might chop up your tracks into bite-sized chunks, but they don't all serve them up as appetisingly as the Denon"
Neither of our twin decks had any integral crossfade or mixing functions, but this is best left to a separate desk. At best they might incorporate a mic input, to facilitate basic live work (or home karaoke sessions), but there'd never be enough inputs for all eventualities.
A CD laser tends to be a CD laser, and even hi-fi buffs don't argue the toss with quite the passion they brought to tonearms and cartridges. Nor are club acoustics exactly refined. But most DJs need to rehearse at home, or will want to use their gear for recording purposes. And there can be a substantial difference in the performance of the various DACs (digital-to-analogue converters) and related electronics built into CD players.
Our Re:Mix CD with its opening CD-ROM track knocked the Vestax for six, the display flashing up an error message to say it couldn't scan the contents. But I wasn't about to let wounded pride prejudice my opinion of the machine's sound quality. (I mean, when are club audiences likely to want a noise-gating tutorial anyway?) So instead the test disc became Strangeways' And The Horse, with a copy in each machine, and each machine hooked up to the same desk. This exercise only served to confirm their uniformly good sound quality. The Denon sounded a touch more dynamic and bouncy, but that may only have been the effect of a beefier output level.
Pioneer have no plans for a twin-drive version of the CDJ500, so for the moment it's comparable to the competition only in price terms. There's no question that it scores on features, of which the tempo-without-pitch-change is the most revolutionary. With a bit of refinement, it could make DJing idiot-proof. And in the absence of a DJ sampler, the looping function puts that of domestic players in the shade. A pair of CDJ500s would make a formidable, if expensive, combination.
In contrast, there isn't much to the Vestax that you couldn't achieve with a pair of portables at a fraction of the price. You'd probably find them quicker to load and unload, too, even if they didn't have pitch control and their LCD readouts were tricky to read in low light. The CD11's vulnerable components look replaceable, but you wouldn't want to be replacing them all the time. Racking it next to your mixer would give it extra protection, but something still needs to be done about the disc-loading process.
For roughly the budget of the Pioneer, Denon are offering twin drives with a remote console. Theirs is an impressive range of professional CD machines, which are adaptable to studio and broadcast applications, with service and backup facilities to match. I'm not quite sold on the DN2000F's beat-matching facility, but if you never stray too far from one groove (or more than 8% at a time) it's a boon. It only remains for them to come up with their own system of separate pitch and tempo control, and put it in a package for less than the price of two Pioneers, and Denon would have an outright winner.
Gear in this article:
Review by Magnus Schofield
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