DJ controllers have quickly become a genuine counterpart to CDJs and vinyl turntables and should definitely be on your radar if you’re looking to get into DJing or want to freshen up your current set-up in 2021.
You might be asking yourself whether DJ controllers are worth it? Given that they’re now available at every price point and are tailored to every level of DJ, we would have to say so. Buying a DJ controller means you’re ready to plug in and play – no need to assemble two decks and a mixer. Just make sure you have some active speakers, a pair of headphones and, depending on available space, a laptop stand and you’re good to go.
Another common question is: are all DJ controllers good? A few years ago, this might have been up for debate, but now DJ controllers are packed with functionality meaning there’s a controller out there for every style of DJing, allowing DJs to hone their craft to the finest detail that they can possibly imagine. It’s never been more tempting to make the switch from the traditional set-up of CDJs or turntables.
Below is Mixmag’s guide to DJ controllers in 2021. We’ve split our pick of DJ controllers into three sections – beginner, intermediate and expert – to help you choose which one to buy. These sections also correspond to cost, with beginner featuring controllers at an entry-level price point and expert featuring controllers that can be considered a more serious investment.
Before we start sizing up the product, we have also provided a rough guide to DJ controller software, how much you should expect to spend, accessories such as laptop stands and speakers, controllers that can be used without a laptop and the question that’s becoming ever more eternal: DJ controller or CDJs?
When you buy a DJ controller that is to be used with a laptop, you’ll need to install the appropriate DJ software on your machine.
If you already use Serato DJ Pro or are looking for DJ software that can be used across controllers made by different DJ tech brands, then you’re in luck – Pioneer DJ, Numark, RANE and Denon all make controllers that will work with Serato DJ Pro. In fact, Serato DJ Pro software comes included with the controllers made by Numark, RANE and Denon as well as Pioneer DJ’s DDJ-S series which is dedicated to controllers compatible with Serato DJ Pro. If you think you might switch between brands regularly, you should consider using Serato DJ Pro.
Pioneer DJ controllers work with rekordbox, which has become something of an industry standard in DJ software given that the majority of clubs and venues use Pioneer equipment that syncs with rekordbox. If you want to practice on a controller at home but be ready to use CDJs in the club, you should consider something from Pioneer DJ’s wide range of controllers, as they are by proxy the closest you’ll get to having a controller that mirrors a club set-up.
Native Instruments DJ controllers work with Traktor, the brand’s signature DJ software and a market leader in terms of reputation and useability.
If you’re looking for a DJ controller that works with an iPad, just make sure your iPad supports the DJ software that comes with the controller you’re thinking of buying.
How much are DJ controllers?
The DJ controllers on this list range from Numark’s DJ2GO2 at £64 to Pioneer DJ’s DDJ-RZX at £2869.
Where to buy DJ controllers?
If you’re thinking of making a purchase on eBay, make sure you have properly researched the controller you wish to buy and go over the seller details and condition of the product they’re listing thoroughly.
Standalone DJ controllers (DJ controllers without a laptop)
DJ controllers that can be used without a laptop include Numark’s Mixdeck Express, Denon DJ’s MCX8000 and Prime 4 and Pioneer DJ’s XDJ-RR. These standalone DJ controllers can be used with USB sticks, like traditional CDJs, but because of this functionality are priced at the higher end of the scale.
Speakers and laptop stands
While DJ controllers provide a DJ set-up straight out of the box, you will need to get yourself some speakers and a laptop stand, depending on how much room you have at home or in the studio.
The easiest way to plug in and play is with a pair of active speakers, which are available at every price point (KRK, Klipsch and Pioneer DJ are some of the brands who do speakers suitable for home DJing). Just make sure you have the correct cables and you’re good to go.
If you already have a DJ mixer connected to CDJs or turntables, you can also connect the controller to one of the channels of your mixer.
In terms of laptop stands, you can work out how much room your DJ controller is going to take up by finding measurements on its product page online. If you don't want your laptop to balance precariously on your other studio equipment or on the edge of a DJ booth, desk or shelf, then a laptop stand would be a wise purchase.
CDJs v DJ controllers
This would have been no contest in favour of CDJs several years ago. But DJ controllers are now so advanced that they offer all of the functionality of a club set-up for at least half the price of a pair of high-end CDJs. DJ controllers are light, portable and weigh in at every price point, meaning beginners through to experts will be tempted to try the tech.
But where this question is a clear winner for DJ controllers is the beginner and intermediate controllers, which offer a way in to DJing for astonishingly good value for money as well as a range of effects and sample features that will take home DJing to the next level without having to break the bank on investments in high end mixers and effects units.
DJ controllers for beginners
Clocking in at around £65 this is the cheapest controller in our guide and is a very simple entry point for beginner DJs and those looking to party on the go. The DJ2GO2 is pocket sized but manages to pack two jog wheels, a cross fader and tempo sliders into its design. It comes with Serato DJ Lite (which can easily be upgraded to Serato DJ Pro) and can be synced with Tidal and SoundCloud, increasing its potential as a highly portable set-up that can be used at house parties or in holiday apartments. It can also be used with iOS. Buy now
Traktor Kontrol Z1
In at £155 is the Traktor Kontrol Z1, a very portable DJ mixing controller with a design that belies its price. The sleek unit boasts the classic two-channel mixer set up of faders, headphone input and channel cues, 3-band EQ and some beefy filter knobs. It’s got a built in 24-bit soundcard and can be connected directly to a pair of active speakers. You will have to press play on your tracks from within Traktor Pro on your laptop or iPad, but apart from that the Z1 allows you to control music just as you would on a standard two-channel DJ mixer. This functionality, coupled with its stylish design, makes this a very appealing choice for the beginner DJ who wants a portable and affordable option. Buy now
Pioneer DJ DDJ-400
While Pioneer DJ’s DDJ-200 two-channel controller with jog wheels and the brand’s trademark steely design will only set you back around £150 and can be used with iOS and Android as well as a laptop, beginners might want to consider going straight to the DDJ-400. At £250 it’s the cheapest way to get yourself on the Pioneer DJ ladder and start to familiarise yourself with the feel and functions of the company’s industry-standard DJ equipment. The unit borrows from Pioneer DJ’s leading NXS2 series and comes built out with more features than the DDJ-200. This bigger controller will be a little less portable, but it’s a solid statement of intent for those looking to get into DJing proper. Buy now
DJ controllers for intermediates
Traktor Kontrol S3
At £449, the Traktor Kontrol S3 is the perfect entry point for intermediate DJing. It’s got features that will help develop DJ skills – namely its four channel mixer, its two banks of RGB pads and its excellent suite of FX – and comes with a very reasonable price tag considering the breadth of functionality that it offers. As you’d expect from Native Instruments, it looks great and is super tactile too – check out the extra long pitch faders, vinyl-style jog wheels and microphone input, all perfect for the bedroom or the party. Buy now
Numark’s NVII does everything you’d expect a four-channel DJ controller to do at £499 – jog wheels, touch pads, effects and filter knobs etc – but the difference it has over the Traktor Kontrol S3 for instance is its integrated displays that look and feel more like CDJs and mean you’ll spend less time using your laptop while you play. In fact, it’s the closest you’ll come to a DJ controller that mimics a CDJ set-up at this price point. Buy now
A DJ controller that offers the sound of Roland’s seminal 909, TR-808, TR-707 and TR-606 drum machines at £499 is sure to cause excitement and the Roland 505 boasts just that in the form of a highly capable two-channel controller perfect for anyone wanting to infuse their sets with some live programming, Jeff Mills style. It’s compatible with Serato DJ Pro and features jog wheels optimised for scratching, a 16-step sequencer and level, attack, delay and tune knobs. The drum sounds can be triggered using the sequencer or the touch pads that run along the top of the unit and it also functions as a standalone mixer to boot. Buy now
Numark’s NS6 was the first four-channel DJ controller and here the company has beefed up the concept as other four-channel units enter the game. At £699 it’s entering the higher echelon of the DJ controller price range but it could well be worth it if you’re interested in the NS6’s dual USB functionality, which allows two laptops to be plugged in at once making for seamless DJ changeovers and back-to-back possibilities too. The four-channel mixer also functions as a standalone DJ mixer, meaning you can run your CDJs or turntables through it when not using your controller or combine them with your controller as part of your DJ set up. The built-in hi-res display on the jog wheels is also a really nice touch, meaning you don’t always have to peer into your laptop when adjusting BPMs and of course there’s the dual bank of touch pads. Buy now
Pioneer DJ DDJ-800
The DDJ-800 is the most expensive of the intermediate DJ controllers that we’ve chosen. At £779 it’s not exactly a bargain but it is the closest you’ll get to a Pioneer DJ club set-up at this price point. Pioneer DJ make a point of how this unit resembles an NXS2 set up and the DDJ-800 does indeed incorporate the same kind of jogwheel, jog adjust and beat FX knob from its more powerful sibling. In fact, the two-channel mixer is pleasingly similar, featuring all of the effects that’ll have you ready for your first set in the club. Jog wheel displays and a feedback reducer on mic use are neat flourishes on a controller that should be considered if you want to join the Pioneer DJ and rekordbox camp. Buy now
Expert DJ controllers
RANE has changed the game with the RANE ONE, a DJ controller that features 7” motorised platters and weighs in at £1299. Aimed at the scratch community and anyone who wants a controller that emulates the vinyl experience, it also features a precision tempo fader and plunger style start/stop buttons that mimic those on vinyl turntables. Attention to detail is also present in the instant access software FX paddles, multi-mode performance pads and dedicated loop controls. There’s also a navigation search knob and a track search touch strip, making it easier than ever to select then spin tracks. Buy now
Denon DJ MCX8000
The MCX8000 is a metal unit with 24-bit sound quality that can be used with your laptop or as a standalone controller. It’s compatible with Serato DJ Pro and also comes with Denon’s Engine Prime software with two USB ports allowing standalone use. There’s a four-channel digital mixer and two mic inputs, as well as a plethora of effects knobs and touch pads. In at £1099, this should be a consideration for anyone looking for a standalone DJ mixer that won’t totally break the bank. Buy now
Pioneer DJ DDJ-RZX
Weighing in at a hefty £2869, the DDJ-RZX is one of the most powerful DJ controllers available to hobbyist and professional DJs alike. It boasts three touch screens, advanced FX and a bespoke 96 KHz/32 bit D/A sound converter. Needless to say, this controller as well as its little sibling the DDJ-XZ, is the closest you can get to a portable version of a full club set-up and indeed, this is made for the touring DJ in mind. Buy now