There can be no doubt when I say that Pioneer own the DJ CD deck market. Like the Technics, the mighty CDJ range has become the standard install for many clubs and an essential buy for many DJs wishing to make the jump from analog to digital. When Pioneer released the original CDJ-1000 and subsequent 800, they ruled the roost, led the pack plus many other euphemisms meaning they pwned the scene. But the competition soon caught up and even surpassed the functionality and feature set of the CDJs, leaving Pioneer in the enviable but slightly uncomfortable position of being the standard, but not necessarily the cutting edge anymore.
Eventually, Pioneer added MP3 functionality to their CDJs - something they’d previously steered clear of for a long time, but the likes of Numark, Denon and Cortex had already announced or even released USB enabled media players. But now Pioneer have played not only catchup but in a small way leapfrogged the competition with the new wallet friendly CDJ-400.
Unmistakably Pioneer, the CDJ-400 is a design hybrid between the lower end CDJ-200 and the 800/1000 top end, bridging the gap into which it fits perfectly. It’s predominantly plastic, with just the odd splash of metal - but that doesn’t mean it feels cheap. Sure, it’s lightweight and the new smaller 135mm/5.25” jog wheel has the same eversoslightly rattling but familiar feel to it, but all the controls have a reassuring smoothness when you use them. Even the pitch control, which is often added as a flimsy afterthought on other units, slides nicely with a gentle but needed centre click.
If you’re an existing Pioneer user, you’ll be right at home, as the Pioneer layout rule book has been read and adhered to. Controls are where you’d expect them to be and the CDJ-400 also has an LCD screen that’s just about the same as the CDJ-800 MK2. More on that later. The play/cue, track and search buttons sit neatly in the same locations as other CDJs and work just as you'd expect them to. CDJ-200 users will have no issues at all adapting to this if they fancy an upgrade and nor will 800 owner who want to embrace USB and MIDI.
If I’m honest, I’m finding the styling isn’t holding up as well as others in the market. In use, it’s a bit of a multi-coloured clashing light show. There also seems to be a sharp edged clunkiness to the CDJ-400 - but largely this is a personal opinion rather than reflecting the abilities of the deck. Function over style any day for me and in use, this functions exactly as I want it to.
In a market that seems to be demanding a move towards entirely digital i.e. media free audio, it's nice to see that even with the addition of a USB port, CDs are still catered for. Right in the front is a slot loading CD drive with the smoothest loading mechanism on God's earth. Not only that, but the whole drive feels like it has shock absorbers, making it less susceptible to jumping if it gets rough treatment. Sadly, it is only CD - no DVD here folks, which when you consider the price of DVD drives these days would have been a good selling point, especially with its probable number 1 rival the Numark iCDX reading DVDs.
Despite the extreme quality of the CD drive, Pioneer really don't want you to get stuck mid-set so should one of your disks decide it wants to stay inside the CDJ-400, you can poke it out from the belly of the beast with the supplied getthecdoutofthecdj tool, which slots very neatly on the underside of the unit.
The CDJ-400 can read audio CD, CD TEXT, CD-R and CD-RW. This includes data CDs as well as MP3 disc, so it's pretty versatile. I tested and burned a few CDs and all worked just fine, complete with all CD text and MP3 tags in place. But here's the thing, unless burned as an audio CD, the only file format you can used is MP3. Purists will of course be writing letters to Pioneer but then again, purists won't be buying a £450 unit for DJing, so MP3 is just fine. This isn't the problem that it once was back in the days of lousy encoding. Keep your encoding rate up high and use constant bit rate (CBR) instead of variable bit rate (VBR) and the CDJ-400 will be happy. I say CBR because that's what the manual recommends, but I used VBR and experienced no issues at all.
For the stat freaks out there, switch on to CD play time is 6 seconds. From CD insert to play, we're talking 3 seconds - not too shabby at all.
The very obvious key feature of the CDJ-400 over the rest of the CDJ family is the ability to read USB media. This is also only USB 1.1 rather than 2 but it should be more than fast enough for the amount data being chucked down the wire. I've thrown all manner of USB keys and various Flash cards at the CDJ-400 and they all worked just fine. But at the time of writing (Nov 2007), there is one limitation - you can't use Mac formats. Right now, the CDJ-400 is limited to FAT16 and FAT32 formats only. No NTFS either, but with hefty licensing fees that's not a surprise really. Sorry - being a Mac owner, I have no FATwhatever USB drives to test, but having successfully thrown a number of different USB FAT32 formatted media at the CDJ, I have no reason to doubt anything but solid performance from FAT PC external drives.
As for iPods - obviously, the above Mac unfriendly news rules out any Mac managed iPod right now. I know, I checked it for myself. However, my daughter's PC managed 1G Nano faired better, giving me access to music based purely on ID3 tags rather than playlists. I did find it crapping out with "E-8305" errors all the time though. This is possible down to an early firmware issue with the CDJ-400 (this unit has a big fat "SAMPLE" sticker on it) which will be no doubt fixed in due course, possibly in the New Year.
Switching between modes is simple - hit the CD key to logically engage CD and USB to toggle between USB and MIDI - more on that later. It's not instant, but only a couple of seconds.
One observation and one criticism: the CDJ-400 doesn't act in a slave/master style. You'll need a mirrored USB device for each CDJ. And the CDJ-400 can only use 1 USB device at a time. You can plug in a hub (although not recommended by Pioneer) but will only ever be able to use a single device at a time in it. If for example I was playing out and wanted to quickly plug in a USB key, I've got to take out my existing device. I would prefer to have real use of multiple devices.
In terms of data, you can organise your data in folders and navigate through them with the "Select" knob and "Back" button - up to 8 levels deep. The audio files are identified by ID3 tags showing artist, title and album. CDs can work with 3000 files inside 2000 folders, whereas USB devices can take 30,000 files across 20,000 folders, which really is ridiculous amounts of music.
So in this first release, it looks like PC users are getting the better deal. FAT devices appear to work perfectly so you Mac guys out there could format external drives as FAT for the time being. Support for iPods is included simply on an ID3 tag basis rather than working with playlists. Roll on the next firmware upgrade.
For the digital DJ, having an LCD screen is almost essential and can make or break the effectiveness of a product - unless you're old school like me and such new fangled devilry is for kids.
The screen appears to have been taken from the CDJ-800 and had a minor tweak here and there. All the usual things are there - track number, pitch range and tempo, text info and time elapsed/remaining. Pressing the "TEXT MODE" button toggles between the artist, title and album tags stored with the track, complete with cool icons.
The one thing missing is any real waveform. You get a progress bar that flashes (rather annoyingly all the time on short tracks like samples) as you approach the end of the track but that's it. For many people, not being able to see the highs and lows in the audio signal could be a real issue. But this DJ says stop depending on technology quite so much and learn to mix properly i.e. with your ears.
The Jog Wheel
The first oh so obvious question that everyone wants to know is what the jog wheel is like. The wheel is just like a regular CDJ - the outer jog part is used for pitch bending and when vinyl mode is engaged, the top pressure sensitive plate becomes the scratch controller. Now when I say pressure sensitive, it’s not an audible click and the push down distance is less than 1mm.
Around the top and bottom of the jog wheel are lights which come on to tell you if you’ve engaged the platter. Not sure about them myself - just seems to add to the LED colour clash and doesn't serve much of a useful purpose.
The big CDJs have a cool centre display that shows the emulation of spinning vinyl. But because the CDJ-400 platter is so small, Pioneer have found a novel way around this. There's a narrow ring around the outside of the platter that lights up - or not - depending on how you have it configured. Engaging utility mode brings up 6 patterns - click the movie for a demo:
If you're having trouble, click here.
This light show does kind of make up for the lack of guiding light, but is a bit vague rather than being an accurate indicator for juggling or spinbacks. The light appears to spin somewhere between 33 and 45 but with the small wheel it feels nothing like vinyl when you pull back under hand. Again, this underlines that while the jog wheel is good, it's not a vinyl emulating platter - nor is supposed to be.
There is however a slight twist on the whole platter thing. Rather than sticking with the somewhat industrial looks of the CDJ-400, Pioneer have decided that a degree of customisation is in order. It's nothing new - Denon have been doing this for years and I seem to remember a CDJ-200 slipmat hack. With the removal of 2 discrete screws (Pioneer even supply the screwdriver), the plastic disk on top of the platter comes off and allows you to insert your own wacky circular design. It's been well thought out as the edge of the platter has a black plastic ring that covers the possibly ragged edge of your creation. At least having a static platter means you can't print out those vomit inducing spiral designs and hypnotise yourself mid set. The other thing to remember is that as a slipmat, it's purely decorative only.
Like many other people, I get a tad frustrated when the online community will praise or hate a CD deck based purely on whether you can bust turntablist specific 6 click autobahn orbit flares. I’ll say this plain and clear so there’s no mistake - the CDJ-400 is not designed to be a pro level scratch deck. It should be judged on what it is and that’s a mid range media player with scratch capabilities. That said, it’s the best small jog wheel scratcher by some margin that sets a new standard for others to aspire to.
And if words aren't enough to sum up how well it performs, watch this:
If you're having trouble, click here.
Like the CDJ-200, Pioneer have included a small set of effects. These are split into 2 types - scratch jog effects and digital jog breaks. Scratch effects come into play when in vinyl mode and generally work with the detected BPM:
Bubble: A super fast warbling effect
Trans: on/off sound, just like the transform scratch technique.
Wah: Kind of sort of like a wah pedal sound.
There are also 3 general effects that can be applied to your music when not in vinyl mode:
Jet: Pioneer's version of phasing - you remember when DJ's used to mix 2 copies together and get that in and out locked effect? Weave it in and out with the jog wheel.
Roll: Imagine sampling a single beat momentarily and being able to speed it up or slow it down with the jog wheel. Really good for doing double beat effects. Not matter what you do with Roll, the music is still playing away silently underneath so when you release (and your head nodding is on beat), it should kick back in on beat.
Wah: OK - this is where it gets confusing. This particular wah is nothing like the scratch Wah effect and is in fact a filter sweep effect, going from low pass to high pass as you turn the jog wheel.
The scratch effects are momentary, or with the "HOLD" button can be applied after the platter has been released. With digital jog effects, Hold applies the effect regardless of engaging the platter. It's worth mentioning that while you're using effects, the jog wheel becomes the controller so pitch bend isn't possible.
Watch this for an overview on beat effects and looping:
If you're having trouble, click here.
In use, I found the scratch effects gimmicky and the lack of control limits their appeal. But the digital break effects are pretty hot for mixing. The Roll effect in particular is very useful for instant remixing or simple slam mixing from track to track. I just wish there was a good way to control the BPM parameters of the effects.
I'm almost getting bored of reporting about the hottest and latest nextlevelness™ getting all cosy with relatively ancient protocols. But everyone who is anyone is making their lumps of hardware MIDI compatible. And Pioneer are no exception.
Switching the CDJ-400 into "PC MODE" via the USB button allows MIDI out mapping of just about every knob, button and fader to whatever software function you see fit inside your favourite software. For example, logically you'd map the hardware pitch fader to the software equivalent but for the other less defined buttons, you could map what you wanted. In utility mode, you can also select the MIDI channel well from 1-16. One world of warning - in MIDI mode, the CDJ-400 is a totally dumb controller. The screen is essentially dead, giving no feedback whatsoever.
I've tinkered with MIDI inside Traktor 3.3 as well as Serato v1.8 beta and it all seems to work just fine. I'm not going to dwell on this too much as I suspect that for most people, MIDI is a nice side effect rather that the reason to buy CDJ-400s. After all, £900 for a pair of MIDI controllers is a long way from cheap, but you can map MIDI controls for use with one deck.
On a related note, the CDJ-400 will be working natively (not via MIDI) with Rane's Serato Scratch Live in the future (v1.8.x). You'll still need to buy the whole Serato package but the option is there. Pioneer's own PC only DJS software is getting an update in January and will natively support the CDJ-400 as well.
Now while this CDJ-400 unit is an early production model lacking the very latest firmware, it does appear as an audio device on my Mac, meaning all the drivers are onboard, which bodes well for other software to plug and lay with it.
The CDJ-400 is no slouch in the pitch department. The slider is a smooth running 100mm one with a nice centre click and comes with 4 pitch ranges:
• ±6%/0.02% resolution
• ±10%/0.05% resolution
• ±16%/0.05% resolution
• "WIDE" - effectively ±100%/0.5% resolution.
Wide can only be applied to audio CDs but offers outstanding audio quality with no digitalness coming through, even at -99% pitch.
Master tempo is also offered and works right across the "wide" range as well. Like any other mater tempo function, there's a practical limit before things start to sound over-stretched or compressed. Don't stretch it more that 20% or cymbals begin to break up, but speed up as much as you like - the CDJ-400 is very impressive when pitching up and lacks the softness often experienced with overpitching in master tempo mode.
Becoming a standard feature on all decks these days, the CDJ-400 has some basic loop functions. In its most basic form, you play your music, define the loop start, loop end and you're done. The loop will continue until you decide to stop it. If however the slightly dodgy BPM detection works properly, you can simply hit the Beat Loop + button and the CDJ-400 will auto slice you a loop perfectly on beat. If you've not hit the loop properly manually, you can adjust the in and out points easily.
Just dwelling on BPM for a moment, I've found the BPM detection to be a bit of a letdown. Regular 4 to the floor house beats work fine, analysing accurately in a matter of seconds. But anything else seems to seems to take a while to actually settle down to a reading that is accurate. Also, there doesn't seem to be a way to tap the BPM in if the auto-detection is taking too long or is way off base. Something to bear in mind for non-House DJs.
The CDJ-400 allows you to work in a semi automatic mode for track cueing. If auto-cue is on, when you insert a CD or USB device, the CDJ goes to the very beginning of the first track and waits there. Also once a track is played, it sits patiently waiting at the beginning of the next track for you to hit play. You can also adjust the auto cue level, based on the loudness of the next track, in 8 steps between -36dB to -78dB. You can also spin in reverse with the "Direction" toggle button if you wish.
There's an interesting resume function with CDs as well. If you spit out a CD and put it back in, the CDJ-400 remembers the last track and position played, making it easier to pick up where you left off if you change your mind about ejecting the CD.
One small issue I've experienced with auto cue enabled is with back cueing and scratching. If you pull back too far beyond the beginning of the track, it'll stop playing. So mid way through your scratch solo with a room full of people hanging on your every move, you'll be left with dead air. Might be a good idea to disengage auto cue while going for scratch stardom.
Cue and loop points can also be saved in the CDJ-400's memory. One cue and one loop per track is allowed and can be recalled at any time - it even survives a CD eject and power off - clever. Define the cue/loop and hit the memory button and it's done. When you insert the CD again, when you get to a track with saved points, the "memory" indicator comes on. A simple press of the "Call" button restores the loop and cue for that track.
You can also save all your custom loops and cues to a USB key, either as a backup or so you can take your custom points to other people's CDJs. This is so much better than simply losing everything once you power off, as happens on so many competitive units.
Round The Back
Clearing up the bits that are left - output wise, the CDJ is serviced with regular RCA line out as well as SPDIF digital out. There's also the mysterious "diagnostic" port seen on many other Pioneer devices. Funnily enough, no mention is made in the manual at all - it doesn't even appear on the schematic. Time will tell if it is an innocent service friendly gateway into the guts of the Pioneer family or something that eventually ties them all together in some Pioneeresque digital way.
Despite being a vinyl lover and having resisted the lure of such small digital players, I have to say that the CDJ-400 is a whole lot of fun. The more I played with the platter, loops, effects and master tempo, the more I wanted one for myself. I'd be equally happy using a pair to rock a regular room full of spaced out gatecrashers kids or using it as a useful tool in my home setup.
I found myself somewhat disappointed at the USB functionality. While for now it is PC only, I expected to be able to plug in a hub and swap between devices as I saw fit. This will mean having to plan a lot more before heading out into the big wide DJ world.
But to balance this, Pioneer are at pains to stress that the CDJ-400 is pitched as a mid-range model that ticks a lot of pro boxes but doesn't cater for the high end needs of your Tiestos and Zabielas of this world. Nor will it have QBert proclaiming it as the second coming of the scratch world either. The CDJ-400 is a cost effective deck that draws from the gene pool of its bigger CDJ family members and has been distilled into a jack of all tricks deck.
When you factor in the key features - USB, MIDI, platter performance and price, the Pioneer CDJ-400 is probably the CD deck with the widest appeal, and will no doubt grab the mid range market by the nuts and own it for the foreseeable future. Recommended without reservation.
Build Quality - 9/10
Clunky looks aside, CDJs don't break.
Sound Quality - 9.5/10
Playback is great across all formats and bit rates. Master tempo is typical Pioneer high quality and the scratch ability and quality is awesome for a deck of this price range.
Features & Implementation - 8.5/10
Squeezing so much into a CDJ is no mean feat. Platter performance destroys the competition and MIDI mode is hot. But with USB only being PC right now and only 1 device running at a time, half a mark knocked off.
Value For Money - 9/10
Getting a really scratchable platter, MIDI out, USB support and native software support into this price range with such quality is amazing.
BPM detection slow on non house beats
No manual BPM tap adjust
USB only PC (but firmware upgrade should fix that)
The Bottom Line
Pioneer have climbed aboard the digital audio juggernaut and squeezed the major features into a neat package. If you need an affordable CD deck with a leaning towards talking to other devices, this is the one for you.