Looking to buy a DJ controller and want to spend around the $300 to $500 mark? If you’re new to digital DJing, this is a smart move. The good news is that for this kind of money, you can get some great controllers that are not only good for beginners, but that will serve you right up to the point where you’re ready to truly invest in a much bigger system.
Also at this $300 to $500 price point, you get a generally much nicer DJing experience than you get on the truly cheap, “micro” DJ controllers (see our 5 Best Micro DJ Controllers for 2021 article), making this definitely the best place for most DJs getting started in the hobby.
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Here’s what to expect from this level of DJ controller:
- Consumer-focused features, but often very good build quality
- A microphone input – something not found on any cheaper models
- Improvements in features – better jogwheels, often better performance pads, EQs and FX controls, sometimes four-deck control
- Generally a bigger, better layout, making for easier DJing
A word about software
We cover controllers here for all four big software platforms: Serato, Rekordbox, Traktor and Virtual DJ, for Mac and Windows. However, Serato controllers at this price point usually come with “Serato DJ Lite”, a cut-down version of the software that you’ll want to upgrade to Serato DJ Pro, usually for a fee of around $100. Factor this in when weighing up the real-world cost of buying one of these units.
Note that if you want to use Virtual DJ software, the good news is that all of these controllers work with it. The bad news is that you’ll have to subscribe to or pay for the software, as none is provided with it “in the box”.
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5 Best DJ Controllers Under $500
1. Hercules DJControl Inpulse 500 Gold LE
It’s not a perfect controller, but value for money-wise, the Hercules DJControl Inpulse 500 Gold LE for Serato is hard to beat. You’re getting a big controller, that is also unique among all of those here in that it has fold-out feet to raise it higher, which we think is a genius move. There is even a light underneath it to make it glow once you’ve raised it!
It only controls two decks of the software, but nonetheless it controls lots of what Serato can do – and the clincher with this particular version of this controller is that it comes with a full Serato DJ Pro licence, meaning you don’t need to spend the $100 extra to get the software, as with the other Serato controllers on this list.
We’d have preferred to see better control of Serato’s effects, and the build quality – while OK – is not brilliant (the paint wore off of our jogwheels pretty quickly, for instance), but this big, imposing, value-for-money controller is nonetheless a bargain. It should serve any new DJ well for many years. Oh, and it also comes with an alternative DJ program, DJUCED, in the box, should you want to try something different, too.
2. Traktor Kontrol S3
Sneaking into this list even though its list price in dollars is $549, the Traktor Kontrol S3 is often discounted, and you can buy this controller for as little as £289 / €398 in Europe. And hardware-wise, you’re getting an awful lot for your money here. Really, this controller is a step up from all the others in this list in that respect, and definitely worth buying over its sister controller, the Traktor Kontrol S2 Mk3, if you can afford it.
It is, in effect, a cut-down version of the pro Traktor controller, the Traktor Kontrol S4 Mk3. But you still get great build quality, full RGB performance pads, four deck control, and the same large, well-laid out controls. It looks and feels professional, and has features none of the others on the list offer, like an Aux input, booth output, and balanced XLR outputs.
Learn to DJ on controllers like these: The Complete DJ Course
And what you also get is the full version of Traktor software, meaning there isn’t a penny more to spend in that area. But this is also what keeps this controller off of our number one spot. Traktor is still a popular DJing platform but feature-wise, it is lagging behind the others, and no longer has the user reach of Rekordbox and Serato. Still, if you’re happy to use Traktor (and lots of DJs are), and you can find this at a good price, it’s an absolute bargain.
3. Mixtrack Platinum FX
Numark’s Mixtrack controllers for Serato have been reliable beginner workhorses since almost the beginning of the DJ controller revolution, and this is actually the fourth generation model. It has a sister controller, the two-deck Mixtrack Pro FX, but for most people, this four-deck one is the best choice.
It is a particularly well-built controller, despite its low cost, which is definitely one of its plus points. It has good jogwheels and great pitch controls, that are long and feel the part. And it has in-jog displays, something none of the other controllers on this list can boast. They feed back useful information from the software to help you not have to look at the screen so much when DJing.
And it also has paddles to control the effects. Paddles are an intuitive and fun way to add effects to your sets, and are particularly beloved of scratch DJs, due to their inclusion on many pro scratch DJ mixers. Again, it’s the only unit here with paddles. That said, the effects control is really quite limited, despite their ease of use. And, it only comes with Serato DJ Lite – factor in that extra $100 to upgrade your software.
4. Pioneer DJ DDJ-400
If you want to use Rekordbox, this two-deck controller is your only choice in the sub-$500 price range. The DDJ-400 is a little bit on the small side, and its layout is looking a little dated nowadays as it is quite an old controller, but nonetheless it has good performance pads (again, albeit a little small), a decent build quality, and a couple of definite advantages over all of the other controllers on this list.
Learn to DJ on controllers like these: The Complete DJ Course
Firstly, it has the “Pioneer club layout”. It has its looping controls laid out the same way they are on Pioneer DJ’s pro media players, and it has its effects controls laid out the same way they are laid out on Pioneer DJ’s pro DJ mixers. This means that if you aspire to play on that gear, or even simply on Pioneer DJ’s more advanced DJ controllers, you’re starting off on the right foot here.
Secondly, it controls Rekordbox, Pioneer DJ’s DJ platform, which is exactly the same DJ software you’ll use for preparing your music to play in clubs on Pioneer DJ’s pro gear. So as you develop as a DJ, and start playing places where that gear is installed (most clubs have Pioneer DJ gear installed, it’s the industry standard), you’ll again find the transition easy. Plus, you get the software with your purchase.
5. Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB3
This little two-deck controller for Serato has also been around for quite a long time now, but is still a popular choice for that platform. It is well built, and although its layout is looking a little dated (its pad control is rudimentary compared to more recent Serato controllers, for instance), for some people that will actually be an advantage.
Why? Because this controller, uniquely among all of the controllers on this list, actually offers a decent level of effects control. It has two proper effects sections, so you can control both of the software’s effects engines pretty well from the hardware. All of the others have cut-back effects control, even though it is actually easier to use the effects on some of the others (this is the trade-off).
So if you want to use Serato, don’t want to spend too much, and need decent FX control, you should consider this – even though you’ll have to pay the $100 extra to get the full version of the software, as it only comes with Serato DJ Lite.
When people ask us “how much should I spend on my first DJ controller?”, we always recommend spending about this amount. Any less, and you’ll be missing features you’ll likely wish you had soon enough. But any more, and you may just make an expensive mistake.
Read this next: What DJ Gear Is Worth Spending Extra Money On?
The truth is, that it’s the software and your laptop that do all the work – the controller is really just a simple audio interface and a set of controls for the computer. You can do pretty much everything you hear DJs doing on one of these, you can learn to DJ to a very high standard on one of these too. And if you decide the hobby isn’t for you? You won’t have committed too much to find out.
And the final argument for only spending around $300 to $500 on your first DJ controller is that when you do choose to upgrade, a relatively small device like this can hang around as your second, backup controller. You’ll probably have fallen so in love with it by then that you won’t want to see it go anyway!