We’d all love to have the best of the best, wouldn’t we? But it’s not always practical, and when it comes to DJ gear, it isn’t even always necessary. So in this article, I’ll talk you through some of the pieces of DJ gear that really are worth you spending extra on – and cover some that you can safely avoid laying out that extra cash to get.
Of course, we all have different priorities, so these pointers won’t work for everyone. But hopefully this will at least get you thinking – and of course I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments about what’s important to you personally and what isn’t.
So let’s look through some gear categories and talk about price, value and importance of “spending big”.
A DJ controller is what most of us use to “control” our DJ software (hence the name) – and therein lies a big truth.
It’s just a controller: It’s a box of buttons and knobs. In that sense, it is no different to your computer’s keyboard, trackpad or mouse. It’s just that the controls it contains are more aligned to the job of DJing. (That’s why you can happily control most DJ software without a controller, too.)
So one needn’t cost you too much. After all, it’s the laptop doing all the hard work!
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One thing that DJ controllers all have nowadays is an audio interface built-in (it wasn’t always the case), giving you separate, independent headphones and speaker outputs. But that’s about it.
So if all you want is a controller that can do the above, really you needn’t pay too much for it – most basic audio interfaces sound great nowadays, so for well under $500 there are loads of choices.
Paying more gets you:
- Better build quality (for using professionally)
- Extra decks (four rather than two)
- Standalone mixer capability (for plugging in non-software sources)
- Gadgets (built-in screens, proprietary advanced DJ features)
So basically, if you want these things, by all means pay more for them – but if not, a DJ controller that you can do amazing things on needn’t cost you a great deal (check out what James Hype does on a DDJ-400 for example).
Verdict: Not always worth paying extra
Most modern laptops can run DJ software just fine, Mac or Windows. It’s far more about how you set them up, rather than raw power or brand. So you could DJ on something that costs just a few hundred and be fine – you don’t necessarily need a high-end Windows model or a super-expensive Mac.
Of course, even a basic Mac will cost you more than just a few hundred and thus more than many Windows laptops – and that is because the build quality of even the lower models is much better than that of countless cheap Windows computers.
And for DJing, build quality is often a big consideration, as durability is one of the things many DJs find important. After all, where you use a DJ computer is a bit more demanding than a home or office environment, and you don’t want it to let you down mid-set.
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So yes, it probably is worth spending for something decently built – but apart from that, just make sure you meet the recommended computer specs for the software you are using (you can check specs on the manufacturer’s website), and you’ll be good. You definitely don’t need to choose Mac if you don’t want to. For more info, check out this free video lesson on what to look for in a DJ laptop.
Verdict: Buy something durable that meets the recommended specs, and optimise it for DJ use (just don’t get hung up on brand)
All-in-one standalone DJ systems
So instead of using a controller with a laptop, you may be drawn towards all-in-one standalone DJ systems. These have the computer effectively built-in, so you just need to plug in a USB drive containing your prepared music library, and you can DJ without a laptop at all.
Just know that with this type of system, a lot of the money has been spent developing the software that runs on their built-in “computers”, and that the software is absolutely essential in your experience of using them. And, of course, the built-in “computer” needs to be powerful enough to do what you want it to do. You pay for these things in the asking price.
So the short of it is: These don’t tend to be cheap. And if you do see bargain basement “no laptop” DJ devices, be very wary of them. Basically, if it doesn’t work with either Engine OS or Rekordbox (the two leading systems), it probably will be a false economy.
Verdict: Not enough choice to make real savings
Separates – media players and mixers – are what pro DJs in clubs overwhelmingly play on. Two media players and a mixer gives you essentially what you get with an all-in-one standalone system. But of course, they have their own power supplies, their own cases, and they always come “pro” specified – and so again, they don’t come cheap.
You can get media players from the big names that are cheaper than their flagship models, but you tend to pay through features that are lacking. And you can get media players that are from smaller brands, but they are always lower quality when it comes to build and function.
The only real “saving” you can make in this product category is to bypass the market leader (Pioneer DJ) and go for the only real alternative (Denon DJ). The Denon DJ equipment is currently far more capable than the Pioneer DJ equipment in this category, and costs considerably less. If “club compatibility” is not high on your list (as most clubs still use Pioneer DJ), this is one place you can definitely save – a lot.
Verdict: Don’t skimp, but it’s only currently worth paying extra for Pioneer DJ if you know you’ll be using their gear in clubs and want to work with the “industry standard”
A turntable is a precision device, designed to turn the platter at an extremely constant speed, and to smoothly translate the minuscule musical information contained in the grooves of a record into high fidelity electrical signals, that sound great amplified.
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Add in the need for it to have smooth, reliable tempo controls for DJs to beatmix with, and a solidity of build so that nothing – bass rumble from club speakers, manhandling from DJs in the mix, or deliberate stress from a DJ scratching – causes them to falter unnecessarily, and this becomes a classic case of “you get what you pay for”.
Just like the laws of physics govern loudspeakers (big speakers = louder), so it is with turntables. Basically, the heavier and sturdier they are, the better. You also want a precision “direct drive” motor (for firm platter control).
Budget turntables tend to be lightweight, built with cheaper components, and thus ill-suited to DJing, even if they are sold as “DJ turntables”. Some (although very few nowadays) are still belt-drive, and these are to be avoided at all costs.
We give advice on turntables at all levels in our turntable buyer’s guide, but one big piece of advice: One of the most expensive turntables out there is the Technics SL1200/SL1210Mk7. Avoid this one.
It is ridiculously priced for what it is, and it tried and failed to break the “heavier is better” rule, being lightweight and suffering from bass rumble that is quite unforgivable at the price. If you really want Technics, try and find (and get refurbished, if you have to) a pair of old SL1200/1210Mk2 turntables.
Verdict: Don’t buy cheap, and avoid modern (and expensive) Technics gear
DJ headphones are not used for extended listening sessions. They have a very specific purpose: To let you hear the track that’s coming in “next”, before the audience does, so you can audition it, and mix it in successfully.
To achieve this, they need to have good sound isolation, be loud, be sturdily built, have a firm headband and grip on your ears, and preferably come with a detachable, coiled cable (detachable so you can change it if it breaks, coiled so you can use the phones both near to and far away from your DJ gear without getting your feet in a tangle).
Things to be wary of in cheaper headphones for DJing with are poor build quality, poor audio isolation, and weak cables. Yes, you need good enough audio quality, but we don’t need to spend loads to get that.
Bottom line: There’s nothing majorly specialised about DJ headphones, and as long as any pair you’re considering ticks the above boxes, you’re good. An industry standard is the Sennheiser HD-25, but Pioneer DJ’s CUE-1 is a good budget choice.
Read this next: 5 Things To Look For In DJ Headphones
As you pay more, you do get more features: They may fold up better, come with a more protective case, offer better audio quality, look cooler – but none of these things is essential. You definitely don’t need Bluetooth, active noise cancellation, or any of that stuff. Basically, think suitability and durability.
Verdict: Not worth spending extra on, past a certain point
All cables need to be durable, because no broken cable is going to work. It’s usually the plugs that are the weak points, so look for cables with sturdy, strong connectors.
That said, once you’ve got durability, there is a hierarchy of importance when it comes to what to pay for them.
Firstly, please ignore all the stuff you read in high-end hi-fi magazines about spending ridiculous money on cables. You really don’t need to. When it comes to choosing, here’s what you need to know:
- Digital cables: Basically, USB cables are what we’re talking about here, and they either work or they don’t. No need to overspend on these as long as they fit snugly in the sockets and you think they will last
- Unbalanced cables: These are the cables you use for short distances, to connect your DJ gear to your home speakers, your DJ separates together, to wire your phone as an extra source into your gear, and that kind of thing. Again, as long as you trust their integrity, don’t overspend
- Balanced cables: These are the cables usually with big XLR connectors or TRS connectors that are used to cover long distances – say, to a PA system on the other side of the club. Pay well for these. They need to be extra specially physically durable, and their whole point is to “shield” the audio signal so it arrives nice and clean at the destination, so they need high-quality wiring too
Verdict: Spend a bit for quality, but don’t believe the hi-fi magazines’ hype
Bags and cases
Maybe the question here is really, “Do I need to spend on these at all?”
After all, you’ve bought all the gear, and this seems like a pretty unglamorous extra spend.
But you absolutely do. The complete minimum you should spend on is a cover for your gear. Even a blanket to throw over it when you’re not using it will do, but we think the Decksaver cases are excellent. Even if you’re not moving your gear, ever, these will protect it from dust and accidentally, say, dropping things on it.
If you’re moving your gear (friends’ houses, gigs and so on), then you probably need more. You don’t need to spend big on hard wood/aluminium flight cases, and indeed, you probably shouldn’t as they’re heavy and unwieldy. There are great DJ gear-specific soft and hard cases that are light weight and offer decent protection. Look at names like UDG Gear and Magma and you should be able to find something at a budget that suits you.
Read this next: When To Upgrade Your Gear (And When To Wait)
The extra money for more expensive such cases buys you backpack-style straps, pockets for accessories and so on – but a simple case to fit your main piece of gear (with Decksaver also covering the controls) needn’t break the bank as it is probably all you really need.
Verdict: Definitely worth spending on, no need to buy the best
As I said at the start, everyone’s priorities will be different, and so this is by no means a definitive list – and of course for brevity’s sake there are lots of categories of gear we haven’t looked at. But we’ve covered the main stuff.
As soon as you start using your gear often (and we hope you will), and definitely when you start playing out, it is worth spending a bit more for quality usually – but you never need to spend on flagship if you don’t want to . One thing is true: None of it will make you a better DJ! Only knowledge and practise will get you that.
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So what do you think? Have you ever bought a cheap piece of gear and regretted it? Or conversely, have you bought a bargain that has lasted you for years? Do you only buy “the best” – or never? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.