DJing used to mean two turntables, a mixer, and a crate of vinyl records. Technology has changed the game. Today’s best DJ controllers aren’t just compact—they’re jam-packed with features that make them perfect for newcomers and beat-dropping, party-rocking professionals alike. Come along for the ride; it’s time to explore the seven best DJ controllers you can get your hands on.
What is a DJ Controller?
Modern DJing, in which tracks are carefully selected, beatmatched and mixed to create a continuous stream of music, goes back decades. We have a lot to thank pioneering artists like DJ Kool Herc for—he was among the first to juggle drum breaks using two records and a mixer. The fundamentals of DJing remain the same; it’s only the equipment that’s changed.
While records gave way to cassette tapes, it wasn’t until well after CDs entered the mainstream that DJs had an alternative to bulky turntables and vinyls: the CDJ.
CDJs were a revelation: a familiar interface, but smaller, and with dozens of tracks on just a few compact discs. DJs could save money, burn their own music to a portable medium, and spare themselves the struggle of lugging boxes.
Then came the DJ controller. Microprocessors got faster, RAM cheaper, and laptops more affordable.
Software-based mixing solutions turned the tables (ha ha) on CDJs, and DJ controllers exploded in popularity. Layouts vary somewhat from one controller to the next, but all feature trim, EQ knobs, cross and channel faders on the central portion of the unit, while to the sides are decks with cue and play buttons, performance pads, pitch faders and jog wheels.
Most DJ controllers interact with software—such as Traktor or Serato—putting physical command of the program into your hands. Analog control, with its speed and expressivity, still reigns supreme.
Without further ado, let’s jump into our selection of 2021’s best DJ controllers. Whatever your budget, style or preferred DJ software, there’s a DJ controller out there that’s right for you!
Pioneer has been in the game a long time. Nearly three decades ago, the well-established brand released a world-first: the CDJ-500 top-loading CD player for DJs. Today, Pioneer continues its tradition of designing outstanding DJ equipment—like the XDJ-RX2, a rekordbox-compatible, all-in-one DJ controller that packs a lot of functionality into a small form factor.
Eyes on the Prize
The XDJ-RX2 has only two channels, but still packs a punch—the vibrant, split-view, 7-inch touchscreen puts critical information, such as track title and tempo front and centre, while full QWERTY search capability lets you quickly find the music you’re looking for. The Wave Zoom feature provides realtime visual analysis of track peaks and troughs, keeping you clued-up about what’s cued up.
Control is at Hand
To the left of the screen are rekordbox, MIDI, USB 1 and USB 2 buttons to quickly toggle between export mode, performance mode and USB browsing. On the right is a large rotary selector for loading tracks. The selector is knurled, making it easy to grip. Needle search and track filter features allow you to quickly skip through tracks and filter them by genre.
Centred under each jog wheel are eight large, tactile pads that give immediate access to hot cue, loop, loop roll, beat jump, saved loop, sampler, slicer, and key-cue modes. The layout is consistent, with play/pause and cue buttons placed to the left of the button bank on both decks, and the tempo controls, to the right.
Cut the Midrange, Drop the Bass
Low, mid and hi EQ controls—one set for each channel—give tonal control: make the bass thump, bring forward the midrange, add some top-end sizzle, or de-emphasize frequencies for a silky smooth transition between tracks. EQ curves and channel faders match those found on the industry standard DJM-900NXS2 professional club mixer, so expect fantastic sound and performance from the XDJ-RX2. Sound Color FX and Beat FX open up an extra dimension of creativity, with unique tones, filter sweeps and delays.
2. Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4
From Native Instruments—makers of the Kontakt software sampler, an impressive range of instruments, libraries and effects, Maschine and more—comes the Traktor Kontrol S4, a beautifully designed DJ controller for Traktor. The S4’s good looks can’t be denied, but let’s take a look at what it can do.
The DJ’s DJ Controller
DJing—the way it used to be done, on the wheels of steel (that, young readers, is oldtimer talk for two turntables)—required a physical approach. Native Instruments’ Traktor Kontrol S4 seeks to emulate that, with its multi-mode, motorized jog wheels. Slanted grooves on the outer edges of the wheels provide great control, allowing them to react to scratches, nutches, backspins and pitch fades, just like a direct-drive turntable. What’s more, the jog wheels provide haptic feedback, letting you feel loops and cue points as they happen. It’s the best of both worlds: analog motors and smartphone-era haptic technology.
Two Displays are Better than One
Though lacking a large touchscreen, the S4’s two high-resolution displays show you tempo, track time and loop information, as well as vibrant waveforms. If you’re using Native Instruments’ Stems—a range of separated musical elements that integrates seamlessly with Traktor—or Remix Deck loop and sample packs, you’re in luck: the S4 also displays components of these Traktor add-ons.
Everything in the Right Sequence
Let’s talk about the S4’s 16 multifunctional RGB pads. They can be used to input cue points and loops, control stems, and create 16-step patterns with up to four samples. Try dropping an unexpected kick, snare, hi-hat and clap under a bassline, and knock your listener’s socks off. And patterns are automatically quantized, so there’s no worry about being off-time.
Sequences can be rewritten and edited on the fly, giving you maximum flexibility. Eight pads per deck gives you a lot to work with. Cue and play/pause buttons are to the left of each pad bank, right where you need them.
Wow, What’s That Sound?
Giving you even more creative control are tempo-synced FX. There are over 40 to choose from, including LaserSlicer, Beatmasher, bitcrushers (for some serious distortion), flangers and many more. Automatic tempo-syncing is nice to have; it keeps effects on-beat and in sync. FX are easily accessed at the top left of each deck, via four (for a total of eight) rotary knobs and pad buttons.
Ready for Anything
Moving on to the centre console, you’ll find a clean layout, starting with gain knobs for the Traktor Kontrol S4’s integrated 24-bit/96-kHz audio interface. A plethora of line, phono, main, booth, headphone and mic inputs and outputs, 2 USB ports, and DVS (digital vinyl system) support means maximum connectivity, while 24 bits and a 96-kHz sampling rate ensure the best possible sound quality.
Setting the Tone, Keeping it Clean
Down below are four channels of 3-band EQ knobs, each with a 3-colour LED strip, and a booth knob—also with indicator lights that help keep your monitoring levels safe, showing you if your volume is clipping. Keep those ears healthy!
Each of the four mixer FX knobs has dedicated on/off and selection buttons, while a large filter button is close at hand. The 4-channel faders and crossfader are thoughtfully designed, with inverted carbon protector strips that provide a barrier against dirt and other substances. We still wouldn’t recommend keeping an open drink by your decks, but it’s nice to have some extra protection.
Another solid DJ controller from Pioneer, the DDJ-1000 is a high-performance, four-channel, all-in-one unit that provides a lot of oomph in a relatively small size. The layout is similar to that of Pioneer’s leading NXS2 model—if you’re familiar with it, you should feel right at home on the DDJ-1000.
Unlike on the XDJ-RX2, there’s no central touchscreen. Instead, a colourful, high-definition screen is placed squarely in the middle of each jogwheel, displaying critical information—track tempo, waveforms, playback position, hot cue and loop points. Pioneer’s reasoning is that this keeps your eyes on the decks. We can’t disagree with that logic—the wheels aren’t motorized (though their rotational resistance can be adjusted), and putting displays on them saves a lot of space. Best of all, the screens are customizable—you choose what’s shown, which keeps things from getting cluttered.
You Have the Keys
Under each wheel is the standard arrangement of cue and play/pause buttons and pitch faders. The eight durable, rubber-based performance pads perform numerous functions, including 14 Beat FX to shape your sound and add drama to buildups and big drops. Loops, hot cues, Key Shift, Beat Loop and keyboard triggers are at your fingertips, too. We quite like the Key Shift feature—with it, you can automatically match the key of your next track to the master deck, or shift keys up or down to create harmony between tracks that would otherwise sound dissonant together.
Don’t Let Your Records Gather Dust
The DDJ-1000 boasts four inputs, allowing it to connect to turntables or CDJs and be used as a standalone mixer. All those vinyls and compact discs you might have sitting around still have a future, after all!
From the Booth to the Dancefloor
Additionally, one booth, two master, and two XLR microphone inputs make it possible to plug directly into PA equipment. Less time setting up means more time mixing. Between the decks are line toggle switches to quickly select sources. You’ll even find a talkover feature on the mic switch.
Trim controls and EQ knobs fill out the upper half of the mixer console, with four large, Sound Color FX controls smack-dab in the middle. To the right of the channel faders is a rotary switch that provides fast access to numerous effects, including a flanger, phaser, echo, reverb, roll, low cut and more. Clicky, analog controls are always welcome; there’s something intuitive and satisfying about them.
Never Fade Away
Pioneer chose to incorporate into the DDJ-1000 their Magvel fader system.
Fader knobs are supported by two magnetic shafts, and a contactless magnetic system dramatically improves longevity. Faders are prone to wear and tear, especially under strenuous, repetitive use (watch a DMC Championship set and you’ll see what we mean). Magvel helps ensure your DJ controller is up for whatever you throw at it.
Rounding out the Pioneer products in our selection is the DDJ-FLX6. More minimalist in appearance than some models, this DJ controller nonetheless delivers the goods, with four channels, new effects, dual software compatibility (rekordbox as well as Serato)—and did we mention that it’s USB-powered?
One Cable to Rule Them All
Let’s start with that. USB has become so commonplace that we might as well call it “ubiquitous serial bus”. Capable of carrying both power and data, it charges and syncs many of our electronic gadgets, but falls short when power demands exceed its capacity. Here, however, Pioneer has built a DJ controller to work within what USB can do.
Just plug it into a computer, and even record to rekordbox, using the included USB cable. That capability, and the integrated sound card that connects to an amplifier or speakers by way of a single RCA cable, makes the DDJ-FLX6 a truly portable, plug-and-play device.
A Successful Merger
Mixing is about more than just blending one track into the next. Today’s audience demands exciting, energetic sets. That’s where Merge FX comes in. An illuminated knob on the upper right of each deck is where the magic happens—press down and turn, as slowly or quickly as you like, to make transitions more impactful. Increase the tension in a snare-driven buildup, place a needle scratch right before the drop, add a long tail reverb to a crescendo, and more. Merge FX lets you create custom effects to take your mix to the next level.
The Cut, The Scratch
Aspiring turntablists will enjoy the Sample Scratch feature. Sounds assigned to a sampler are loaded to the decks and scratched using decks 3 and 4, while decks 1 and 2 play tracks. Enabling the Jog Cutter simplifies matters further—moving the jog wheel creates any of 10 realistic scratch patterns on the last playback or hot cue position used on a deck. Switching between patterns is as easy as moving the playhead position on the wheel’s display.
The DDJ-FLX6’s eight backlight, rubber performance pads trigger various features, including Pad FX (which apply rekordbox Beats FX and Color FX), hot cues, Pad FX, Beat Jump and the sampler. Between the two decks is a standard arrangement of four banks of 3-band EQ knobs, trim controls, low- and high-pass filters, and channel and cross faders. The 5-light LED indicators provide a less granular representation of peak levels than is found on some DJ controllers, but are nonetheless sufficient.
Denon DJ Prime 4
Denon’s Prime 4 is a beast. Among the most powerful DJ controllers, the Prime 4 distinguishes itself from the crowd by working independently of an auxiliary laptop, putting the screen and necessary computing power into the controller itself. That means one less piece of gear to transport or worry about getting damaged at a gig. And the integrated, extra-large screen looks amazing.
The Big Screen
That touchscreen—at 10”, it’s about the size of a tablet—provides multi-gesture and QWERTY access to an overview of four decks, horizontal or vertical waveforms, track search and selection, playlist and virtual crate creation, and other crucial information you’ll need during your set. The screen flips up to an optimal viewing angle, and is held in place by a foldout kickstand located at the screen’s rear.
Scrolling through music libraries, loading tracks and performing other functions is snappy, thanks to the multicore processor powering the Prime 4. You’ll also find a top-quality, algorithmic timestretch feature, and the ability to lock pitch and shift and match keys, even during major tempo changes.
No Laptop, No Problem
As physical media has been abandoned in favour of digital formats, music libraries have grown in size. With a world of songs available at the click of a button, DJs have more music than ever before to choose from. Denon’s Prime 4 is well-equipped: it features four USB ports and an SD card slot.
And if that’s not enough, the built-in 2.5” SATA drive bay can accept up to a 1 TB hard drive, which can hold approximately 200,000 tracks (assuming a file size of 5 MB/track). The Prime 4 supports a number of standard file formats, both compressed and uncompressed, and even USB keyboards, which are still easier to type on than even the best touchscreen.
Everything You Need, Nothing You Don’t
The Prime 4’s 6” jog wheels are neither motorized, nor show much in the way of information (that’s what the massive touchscreen is for), but have deep finger grooves, are touch-capacitive, highly responsive and RBG-customizable, and display brand logos or track artwork. With a mixing-oriented DJ controller like this one, that’s really all you need.
Keep on Rollin’
Eight RGB performance pads under each deck allow you to trigger and juggle between hot cues, create and save looped track portions, trigger predefined straight and triplet rolls—throw in a percussive roll anywhere you like—and slice tracks into single beats.
No Pain, Just Gain
Above each channel fader are 3-band EQ and gain knobs, along with 10-LED level indicator strips. Dividing the EQ controls is a Master level indicator and 4 Sweep FX buttons that select between filter, wash, echo and noise effects. Sweep effects can be adjusted per channel via a knob under the equalizer. (Speaking of effects, you’ll also find 14 outstanding FX, taken straight from the powerhouse X1800 club mixer. Each of these effects can be individually selected and parameter-controlled.
Use the Mic You Like
The Prime 4 includes two dedicated mic channels, each providing EQ, echo and level controls, as well as on/off and talkover settings. Two TRS mic inputs make it easy—easier, even, we’d say, than with a 3-pin XLR connector—to connect any wired microphone of your choice.
The Roland TR-808—a drum machine once derided, as the now legendary Roland TB-303 was, for its poor approximation of the real instrument it was meant to replace, eventually became a staple of techno and hip hop production. Best known for its booming kick drum—most often heard today with boosted harmonics that can be heard on even the feeblest of speakers—the 808 has firmly cemented its place in modern music.
One Step at a Time
Anyone familiar with the TR-808 will immediately recognize the iconic red, orange, yellow and white 16-step sequencer at the top of the DJ-808 DJ controller. But Roland didn’t stop there. The DJ-808 delivers not only the sounds of the TR-808, but kicks, snares, hi-hats and claps from the 606, 707, and 909 drum machines.
Even purists will be pleased by the sound, which is driven by Roland’s Analog Circuit Behavior. Attack, decay and tuning knobs top off the faithful reproduction. And the sequencer acts as a master clock—set the tempo and easily sync up external MIDI devices using the two AIRA Link ports, or control the Serato sampler.
To the right of the drum sequencer, you’ll notice a mic section. Level, hi and lo knobs are present, but just below them is where a bit of microphone magic happens: enabling the Voice Transformer feature automatically pitches your voice to match the key of the track playing in Serato. The reverb setting and two intensity levels will tempt even the most reluctant singer to harmonize with their favorite tunes.
Out for a Jog
At the top of each deck is an FX section, with three level knobs and on/off buttons. The jog wheels provide visual feedback, are extremely precise, and boast very low latency—a must when mixing and scratching. Unlike on most DJ controllers, the DJ-808’s pitch faders are asymmetrically positioned on the outer edge of the decks. The play/pause and cue buttons reside on the inside of the deck portion. This is inconsistent with standard positioning, but hardly a dealbreaker.
Take it to Maximum Velocity
What is standard is the arrangement of the eight performance pads. They’re RGB and velocity sensitive, triggering cues, loop rolls, the onboard drum machines, and Pitch Play, which allows you to retrigger cue points and make chromatic pitch adjustments on the fly. Velocity sensitivity is a nice touch, no pun intended—truly responsive pads inspire creativity.
FX for Your Decks
In addition to the 4-channel, 3-band EQ controls, trim knobs and two-tone LED bars are four channel FX buttons, giving you access to Dub Echo, Jet, Swoosh and Filter effects. The channel faders are separated by a drum machine/sampler fader, and down below is the crossfader—considered one of the best in the business.
The first thing you might notice about the Reloop Touch DJ Controller is that the control fonts are large, faders look widely spaced, and buttons, some of them, anyway, are big and blocky. It’s a stylistic departure from more complex DJ controllers, but don’t let the pared-down looks and lightweight construction fool you: the Touch is a competent device that deserves a spot on our best-of list.
Keep in Touch
Featuring a bright, clear, 7-inch touchscreen between the decks, the Touch puts necessary information on the centre of the unit, including track progress and information, waveforms and tempo. An XY panel allows for intuitive, realtime effects control. The large screen provides an overview of different performance modes, and makes track browsing and familiar, drag-and-drop media organization a snap. Reloop’s Touch can even mix video in fullscreen mode. And Using Virtual DJ, you’ll be able to view up to four decks simultaneously.
Breaking with Convention
The jog wheels are a bit high up and a touch on the small side. Like on the Roland DJ-808, the pitch faders are asymmetrically placed, one to the outer edge of each deck. But something about the layout of the Reloop Touch makes the unconventional sizing and positioning work, and the Touch’s low-latency wheels feel reassuringly hefty. LEDs indicate the wheels’ centre position, and you can switch decks with buttons placed directly below.
Live in Effect
The FX unit utilizers four wide faders instead of traditional knobs for audio and video effects, while the large on/off buttons are impossible to miss. An XCoder knob to the left of the pads activates loop, key and grid adjust settings. Try setting a loop start- and endpoint, shift the key, and repeatedly halve the loop to create a buildup.
From Virtual DJ to Real-Life Performance
At the bottom of each deck are sync, cue and play/pause buttons—and of course, eight large, responsive performance pads. A pad mode and dual parameter button above each bank of pads makes short work of switching modes and making adjustments. The pads work with numerous Virtual DJ performance modes, including roll, slicer, hot cue, key cue, cue loop, sampler, saved loop and beat jump.
On the front of the Reloop Touch is a dual headphone jack and mic input; on the rear, you’ll find RCA and TRS master outputs, as well as a single USB port. It’s a simple and uncluttered arrangement that matches the overall layout of the Touch, and provides enough connections for the typical user.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the best DJ controllers currently available. As you can see, there’s a controller for almost everyone—if you haven’t already gotten one, now is the time! Mixing has never been so accessible, so consider how and where you’d like to play, pick up a DJ controller, and rock the party, whether it’s in your basement, bedroom or on the dancefloor. Thanks for reading.