CDJs vs DDJs: Which One is Better?

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I can remember when you used to see them scratching and mixing using old turntables and actual vinyl records. The idea and equipment used by DJs have changed over the years as technology has advanced the industry. Modern DJs mostly run with a completely digital catalogue of songs and sounds that can be used. To properly use digital songs you need devices that can use them. Thus we have the use of CDJs and DDJs. Let’s take a look at them…

CDJ or Decks

What is a CDJ? The term CDJ can be used interchangeably with the term “deck” and colloquially to mean a digital-based DJ deck made by any manufacturer. The letters come from combining CD with DJ. Other people say it’s definitely from “Compact Disc Jockey”.

While originally designed to play music from compact discs, many CDJs can play digital music files stored on USB flash drives or SD cards.

CDJs are the modern versions of the turntables and you’ll often find that clubs and venues have turned to them as the industry standard. They are the DJ’s source of music. They allow you to carry your music on USB drives and simply plug them in. Most have digital screens that show you the lineup of music available and the beats via equalizer. These have to be connected to a mixer and you will usually see one on each side of a mixer in a standard DJ performance. 

With a CDJ, you may be able to upgrade its proprietary software, but your unit remains the same. You can only ever add extra decks as allowed by the hardware’s location limitation. For clubs or studios where they are kept stationary, that’s fine. But if you need this unit to be portable, you’ll also have to add on a mixer and sound output of some kind. 

The newer CDJs are capable of using USB inputs across multiple decks and just need one mixer between all of them. This might not be as portable or easy as the one-piece DDJ controller, but if one of your components malfunctions – you still have the rest that you can use. If something goes wrong with a DDJ controller, the entire unit is gone, mixer and all. 

CDJs are independent and can be used without a laptop or other device. DDJs, on the other hand, are reliant on a laptop or other device containing the DJ software to be plugged into it at all times. CDJs are more flexible (being able to play all music formats, as well as work as Midi controllers for DJ software).

Pioneer “pioneered” the CDJ units and as such, they still are the most used brand to come out with and keep improving upon the technology. The CDJ most commonly found in clubs from the Pioneer line-up are the Pioneer CDJ-2000NXS2’s. These things are about $2000 (if they are on sale). Keep in mind that you need at least 2 of these along with a mixer that they can communicate with easily (therefore the best bet would be a Pioneer which is also pretty expensive) to complete the full set-up. 

Pioneer’s more affordable model is the CDJ-350. As well as of course playing CDs, it works out of the box with Traktor, Serato DJ, and Rekordbox DJ, plus you can play music from a thumb drive prepared with Rekordbox, just like a club-standard CDJ. It winds up being about $500 at most places. There are mappings out there for Serato DJ and Virtual DJ among others, but it is limited compared to the Pioneer. 

DDJ Controllers

What is a DDJ? DDJ stands for Digital Disc Jockey or Digital DJ. Controllers are the all-in-one option for digital DJs who want high functionality and usability along with ease of use.

Often, a DJ will use a DDJ controller in their home studio or on performances when alternative DJ equipment isn’t provided. A lot of DJs start off on controllers and then go on to get used to the larger CDJ units. 

So, let’s look at DDJ controllers. 

These are all-in-one DJ systems. Because this unit is two turntables connected to each other by a middle mixer, these units are great for portability. Functionality goes hand in hand to the layout being the same as what you usually find with the CDJ decks. These units are great for hobbyists and beginning DJs. Because their layout is so similar to the industry standard, a lot of people learn on these units and can go into a professional DJ setting to use a deck & mixer set up with ease and confidence.

Controllers essentially mimic the function of turntables and mixers. A DJ controller is a console that provides a manual control of your DJ Software that is either hosted inside the console or on a connected laptop or tablet. Most of the new age controllers come with smartphone and tablet support. 

The control surface features knobs, buttons, pads or faders, and jog wheels. These are used for the hands-on control of the software functions and settings. They also usually come with MIDI controls, trigger pads, drum pads, mic connections. The surface will also contain display and LEDs. These are helpful in indicating parameters like audio levels and system status.

The audio interface’s function is to transport the signal to external equipment. This includes computers, mobile devices, PA systems, and effects processor. The number of external equipment that requires a signal will depend on what type of connectors are available with the controller.

When they first came out, they were not considered a quality product when contrasted with the standard 2-deck and a mixer setup. But over the years DDJs have vastly improved. They also provide the ability to use digital samples of different sounds, not just songs. All of this and it costs less than the standard DJ set-up. 

There are both controllers that are either software specific or those that can work with different software. Software specific controllers can provide a powerful integration with the given software. However,  DJs will be unable to use these controllers with other standard software – and in a lot of gigs, they have to use other equipment, not always their own. That’s why many DJs may favor software versatile controllers. These come with templates for major DJ software so the mapping from the controller to software becomes easy.

There are also wireless controllers. It can be incredibly feasible for DJs to use wireless controllers. Fewer the wires, lesser the hassle during a gig. In many controllers, the connection to the software is provided through a USB. These provide even more freedom of movement. However, there may be interruptions in signal, so be wary. 

The advent of the smartphone age has given rise to a large number of DJ applications for those products. This is why iOS has become an option for many DJs. Adding a few components to an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad, these devices can be converted into an effective rig. 

Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000 is billed as a pro-level rekordbox control with a CDJ feel. It costs either $795 or a little over $1000 depending upon the sale. One of the best Serato DJ controllers is the Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000SRT which is usually $100 more than the cost of the DDJ-1000. 

If you want to go cheaper, but still have some quality, I’ve seen the Pioneer DDJ-800 using the Rekordbox Software and it costs around $800 – $900. 

So, as you can see, since you only need this one complete unit to DJ, it’s very much more affordable than a CDJ set-up.

CDJ or DDJ?

There are DJs that will argue over the worth of CDJs versus DDJs. To be honest, the decision should be yours to make and no one should shame you for that decision. 

Quality CDJs and Mixers can be very expensive, sometimes 3X more expensive than a quality DDJ controller and software. 

CDJ set-ups are heavy and take up a lot of space as compared to their controller counterparts. 

Clubs usually have CDJ set-ups already installed and so, it’s practical to get used to using them. 

If something goes wrong with a DDJ, the entire unit is gone, mixer and all. You have to then default to using the laptop and hope for the best. If something goes wrong with a CDJ, you still have all of your other components available to use. 

DDJs are reliant on a laptop or other device containing the DJ software to be plugged into it at all times. The good news is that a lot of the mixing can happen before the performance using this software. The bad news is, the screen can become distracting for a DJ and lessen their connection to the audience. 

Also, some people complain that using a controller takes away from a live performance should your DJ not want to really get into the show. With a DDJ, the DJ can essentially just show up and play with fewer effects and mixing on the fly. So their sound is kind of canned instead of unique to that performance. Keep in mind, not all DJs limit themselves this way.  

While controllers provide more flexibility, they also produce lower sound quality according to many DJs. It is said that digital tools take a snapshot when capturing analog sounds. This fails to produce the complete sound waves so the sound definition and impact are decreased. 

Just as some CDJ DJs look down on controller DJs, some turntablists – the original DJs – find vinyl creative and feel it’s a classier option than digital tools – whether they be CDJs or DDJs. imagine what kind of flack a person who carries just a MIDI controller and the right DJ software or applications gets when they walk into a venue to DJ.  

I guess the most important thing to remember is that a good DJ should be able to use anything. And to be honest, the more dynamic you are, the more places you can DJ. So, even if you’re a controller DJ, it pays to be able to DJ on CDJs too, and to respect the fact that this is where DJing came from (and vinyl turntables before that). But likewise, CDJ DJs shouldn’t close themselves off to what’s possible on laptops and controllers. After all, technology is improving.

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.