At the time of writing (January 2019) Denon DJ has done a great job of marketing the new Prime 4 standalone all-in-one DJ system – but you can count on one hand the number of actual units out there. Therefore this is a first look review, from the trade-only NAMM Show – our full review coming in a few weeks.
I did get to have a proper play for 20 minutes or so in Denon DJ’s private suite, though, and can report to you an awful lot not apparent from the PR. So let’s get going with this world-first actual hands-on appraisal…
It feels like a slightly larger than normal pro DJ controller, along the lines of the MCX8000 from Denon, or Pioneer’s DDJ-SX/RX-sized units. The main difference is the depth – this has a lot more controls positioned above those you’d find on a standard DJ controller. We’ll get onto those in a bit.
It is also lighter than it looks. It’s not in any way lightweight, and indeed feels to be built to the highest standard, but it isn’t prohibitively heavy. It’s doesn’t feel to be as heavy as the XDJ-RX2 from Pioneer DJ, for example.
The jogwheels in photos look small, but in “real life” they’re plenty big enough – it’s just that, as I say, the unit is quite big, and so proportionately they look that bit smaller. That isn’t actually the case.
Finally, the screen is pretty close to iPad standards in brightness and smoothness, and despite being adjustable (you can have it near vertical, or, indeed, flat), sturdy. It comes with a slide-on dark plastic cover to protect it in transit, although you’d want to get a decent case as it protrudes from the back of the unit when folded flat.
Decks and mixer
The “bottom part” of the unit – everything beneath the screen – feels pretty much like any high end DJ controller – everything is where it is and as it should be.
A nice touch is the cover art from the selected track appearing in the middle of the jogwheel when you’re playing, and bars in the mini circular screen circumference showing you jogwheel transit – would be nice for those to show you how much of the track you’ve played, as with Pioneer CDJs though. The screens also show you length of selected loop from the loop encoder.
I liked the beatgrid edit function, underlining that the unit is designed not only to play without a laptop, but also to prep your music that way, and Denon’s signature Pitch Bend buttons survive. the four sweep effects are also great on the mixer, and work with external inputs as well as with digital files.
Inputs, outputs and effects engines
Move up the unit a bit though, and it gets more novel. The FX (only one effect per engine at any one time – you can’t daisychain them as with DJ software) have little screens that show you what’s selected and the parameters, which are awesome.
But it’s top right is where you find undoubtedly one of the draws of this unit for mobile DJs: the zone output. You can route channel 4 through here to completely different output around the back, and set a playlist to play from there to, for instance, another room entirely, while you DJ with the other three channels. That said, it would have been even better if this were on a “fifth” channel, leaving the rest of the unit free to DJ normally on.
The two mic channels have three and two-band EQ respectively, echo, and adjustable talkover – which is all typical Denon DJ. The company knows mobile DJs will love this unit, and has added these with full knowledge of its market. They’re great.
Meanwhile around the back, it was good to see a stereo/mono switch on the master output alongside the expected gamut of ins and outs – often DJs really don’t want anything other than mono coming out of their mixers, and so having the option right there on the unit is smart. Two of the four line inputs can be switched to phono, for turntables and DVS (Serato Pro support is coming).
Worth pointing out here that one of the four (count ’em) USB inputs for music is also a charging port.
As this is designed to use without a laptop, the thing is going to live or die on the power of the built-in computer, and the interface – and the screen is obviously a huge part of this.
I loved it! Typefaces are huge, it is super responsive, graphics are clean, it’s bright, and everything you need is there. I liked the way you could switch from two to four deck display for when you’re only DJs on two decks, and I also loved the big pop-up Qwerty keyboard for easy searching. It autofills too, so in practice, you can find what you want fast.
You find yourself switching between library and waveforms when DJing, and loading tracks is super easy – you can swipe in one direction to load (and quickly tap your deck to tell it where to load to), or go old school and use the browse knob and buttons.
You can’t “throw” the waveforms like on some iPad Dj software for onscreen scratching and spinbacks (boo!) but you can pinch and expand them to zoom in – when you pinch or expand one, the other moves to the same scale. You can scrub through a track using the horizontal waveform with your finger, though.
I loved that when you use Loop Roll or Slip, the waveform splits into “two”, the “unslipped” section playing on in grey, and what you’re actually doing remaining in the bright green/blue colour.
I didn’t like the lack of a horizontal waveform option, though; this is how I like to DJ, and judging by our community feedback, many of you do too. I asked Denon DJ about this and they said they’re bringing forward getting this added.
I didn’t like the way they’ve implemented playlists and folder; it was confusing trying to work out which of those two buttons to tap for what you wanted to do. Denon DJ tells me these will probably be combined in the future, again based on early user feedback.
Again, I only had a few minutes with this, but a couple of other things I liked: the key sync is good, and sounds awesome – top marks for that. It’s a bit fiddly to implement (you have to touch the key readout on the touchscreen) but it works great.
Not on the video that accompanies this review but on show on one of the other units nearby was something I was curious about – namely, the lighting features. They had a simple computer network cable plugged into the back of the unit heading of to a laptop running both Resolume and Sound Switch software, two decent lighting and visual software options (the latter of which, of course, is owned by Denon DJ’s parent company inMusic). I had some fun scratching a lyric video of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” while waiting to film this review!
Finally, worth reiterating that this has a port for a hard drive – 2.5″ SATA, up to 1TB currently – that you can permanently wire in. Do that, and you could conceivable never plug this thing into a laptop, bringing music in from USB and analysing, organising into playlists, beatgridding and playing all from that big touchscreen and the other controls on the unit.
The Denon DJ Prime 4 is the talk of the DJs at NAMM, and rightfully so: It’s the most innovative thing here by as mile. It is well engineered, mostly everything works great, and a lot of fun to DJ on. And for US$1699, it’s great value too.
Obviously mobile DJs will love this, but I can see it being installed in bars and lounges (complete with a music collection permanently in it), as well as being the obvious “home unit” for anyone who uses Denon DJ’s pro gear. Frankly I’d love one in my living room as the centre of our home entertainment, too – and I doubt I’m going to be alone in thinking that!
Finally, I was amazed to actually see someone plug in a USB with a Rekordbox library on it and witness the Prime 4 handling that just fine too – testament to the power of the computer they’ve built into this thing, and the potential it has.
Get some of those early usability and screen layout niggles sorted (all of which would could be corrected easily in firmware, and maybe even before it goes on sale), and this deservers to shift bucketloads.
Remember, our full review coming soon, but for now this is an easy five out of five. Shame it’s a bit big for my hand luggage back to Europe…