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Published Oct. 13, 2021

DJ tools are always innovating. There may have been a time when every DJ had to have a Technics 1200 to look legitimate (and a slightly updated version of those decks can still be imported from Japan), but that time has largely passed. Today many DJ’s use full digital systems that work in tandem with a computer. Using controls that mimic spinning vinyl, these controllers allow a user to intuitively scratch in a track, or slow a track’s positioning by hand. These devices usually come with included crossfaders and equalizers that take the place of the mixer that vinyl DJs once used as the hub between turntables. These controllers can come loaded with different options, like beat samples and sonic effects, and are often compatible with multiple software options. Some controllers however are built to work with one specific software brand like TRAKTOR or Serato, and may not be compatible with other software formats.

A full digital club set up is not the only way to work, so I included a couple of options on this list to change it up. Vinyl heads can get the authenticity of real vinyl and some of the flexibility of the digital age with a DVS compatible system. DJ’s are also pushing the limits by adding Ableton Live and other digital audio workstations (DAWs) into their mix, so I added one Ableton instrument to this list as an alternative (or supplement) to mainstream DJ controllers.

How We Picked These Products

Methodology

While some components of what makes a good DJ controller vary from one type of device to the next, there are certain components that always have to be there, no matter what your musical goal is. For this list I took a look at a wide array of DJ controllers, turntables, and electronic interfaces to find the best controllers for the average DJ rig.

  • Channels and Inputs: As with any audio interface, more channels mean more connectivity. If you’re looking to pull from multiple sources, like two vinyl decks and a microphone for example, or export to multiple mixed “zones,” more channels, inputs, and outputs are good. 
  • Jog Wheels: Jog wheels give you intuitive control over your performance.  Mimicking and expanding on the feel of vinyl and CD decks, jog wheels allow you to scratch, pause, and adjust the timing of music. A good jog wheel makes a DJ controller accessible, and gets your hands in the music. Most DJ controllers on this list feature jog wheels, but DVS focused set ups don’t necessarily need these, as analog turntables or CDJs can be used with a good mixer instead.
  • Performance Pads: Many contemporary controllers come with pads. Usually mappable, these can be useful for triggering effects, sounds, key shifts, samplers, or selecting functions and more. Performance pads have become ever more commonplace as an interface in music production tools. Not all controllers feature these, but most of the best controllers on the marketplace do. I included one alternative controller that features pads centrally for a more musical effect.
  • Fader: A solid fader is crucial for any good DJ controller, and the best controllers feature faders with detail and precision.

The Best DJ Controllers: Reviews and Recommendations

Best Overall: Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 Mk3 DJ Controller

Detailed Spinning

This four channel jog wheel controller uses TRAKTOR software and gives you space to incorporate analog vinyl for DVS flexibility. Native Instruments

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Why It Made The Cut: This is an all around great device that has more than enough of everything most DJ’s will need, in an attractive and intuitive package.

Specs:

  • Inputs: 2 phone in, 4 line in
  • Outputs: 2 stereo, 1 XLR, 1 ¼ inch, RCA, headphone
  • Built In Audio Interface: Yes
  • Jog Wheels: Motorized
  • Number of Pads: 16 RGB
  • USB Hub: Yes
  • Dimensions: 21.3 x 14.2 x 2.6 inches
  • Weight: 9.5 pounds

Pros:

  • Comes with free TRAKTOR Pro 3 software for easy plug in setup
  • Generous inputs mean good connectivity
  • USB connects directly to your computer with no extra audio interface required
  • DVS flexibility
  • Cue points and loops click on jog wheel as you scroll

Cons:

  • TRAKTOR only
  • Only 3-band EQ

The  Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 is very much of the new school, but with its powerful and precise jog wheels, easy-to-use TRAKTOR technology, generous FX, and pad array, it’s undeniably a powerhouse pick for the average user. While some analog and vinyl junkies gripe about digital controllers losing the headroom and power of analog devices, this controller makes up for it with a vast array of features and impressive power. Its light yet sturdy build is perfect for mobility. With jog wheels that click as you pass loops, and user set cue points within a track, you can keep your eye on the crowd while staying in control. The jog wheels spin just as a record player’s would, making this an intuitive switch for CDJ users. With four lines in and two phono lines in, this controller could double as a mixing station for a performance synth rig. With 16 performance pads, the built in sequencer, sampler, and trigger options are at your fingertips.

This is a perfect centerpiece for a forward looking digital DJ rig. For those who want a powerful controller to act as a hub to connect turntables, a laptop, and possibly even a synthesizer, while emphasizing excellent jog wheels for a traditional feel and good connectivity, this is a great pick. 

Best Value: PIONEER DJ DJ Controller (DDJ-400)

Spend Less, Spin More

This is a budget DJ controller that hangs with the pros. Pioneer DJ

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Why It Made The Cut: With a solid club set up, solid jog wheels, and a mobile yet sturdy design, this DJ controller is bigger than its price tag.

Specs:

  • Inputs: 2 Channels, 1 Mic
  • Outputs: RCA, headphones
  • Built In Audio Interface: Yes
  • Jog Wheels: 2
  • Number of Pads: 16
  • USB Hub: Yes
  • Dimensions: 18.98 x 10.72 x 2.3 inches
  • Weight: 4.6 pounds

Pros:

  • Classic design for an attractive price
  • Bundled with rekordbox
  • Limited Beat FX

Cons:

  • No XLR out
  • rekordbox requires a subscription for full features

Looking for the first piece for your kit? The PIONEER DJ DJ Controller (DDJ-400) entry level DJ controller offers remarkable digital functionality for an excellent price. With two classic jog wheels and a club set up, this device operates like classic CDJ setups. Control the flow of sound intuitively. Apply FX in rhythm with the press of a button, and fire samples with pad triggers.

There are some limitations. The device’s limited channels mean you won’t be able to easily pair a turntable, or use external instruments mixed in. Its lines out are also quite basic. It features a headphone jack, RCA connection, and USB connection, so no XLR connection here. This means that while this is a great starter controller for practice or for home parties, it lacks some of the standards that you’ll want for a club DJ controller.

Best for DVS: Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol Z2 DJ Mixer

Future On Wax

This mixer and DJ controller has one foot in the analog world and one foot in the digital. Native Instruments

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Why It Made The Cut: This controller works with analog turntables or CDJs while segueing with digital instruments and TRAKTOR software on your computer.

Specs:

  • Inputs: 7 analog: line, AUX, phono, microphone
  • Outputs: 6 analog: XLR, RCA, ¼ inch booth, headphones
  • Built In Audio Interface: Yes
  • Jog Wheels: None
  • Number of Pads: 8
  • USB Hub: Yes
  • Dimensions: 10.7 x 15.3 x 4.3 inches
  • Weight: 11.2 pounds

Pros:

  • Lots of analog connections
  • Perfect for more experimental kit builds
  • Flawless software pairing
  • Strong FX filters
  • Tough build

Cons:

  • No jog wheels
  • Cross fader could be slightly better
  • EQ is only 3 band

This mixer and DJ controller combo competes with devices a thousand dollars pricier. Positioned to act as a central hub to a digital-age DJ kit, this controller can connect it all. For DVS play, this device can be rigged as a central mixing terminal to connect two turntables or CDJs and link them into TRAKTOR software on your computer. With time-coded vinyl or CDs spinning on your decks, the Z2 DJ Mixer allows you to control your digital sound library with the tools DJs have been using for generations. For vinyl heads who want to sample or scratch from the real thing, this device gives you that power with all the flexibility that TRAKTOR provides. Play two tracks on vinyl and mix in another track from your digital library. It’s also a strong choice if you want to build a more hybrid set, mixing say, a laptop, turntable deck, and synthesizer.

This controller didn’t make our best overall category simply because it’s not the first thing the average DJ needs, but this device would be my personal pick of the bunch. Offering so much flexibility and power for a truly decent price, you can’t argue with its functionality. If you want to build a truly awesome, flexible tool bag, start here. However, if you’re a working DJ who mostly plays from a digital library, a more complete DJ controller designed for less hybrid builds will get you to the gig sooner. Some will gripe that this device doesn’t offer the same power and 4 band EQ that competitors do, and we hear you, but at the end of the day, there’s really nothing like the Z2 DJ Mixer in its price range.

Best for Mobile DJs: Roland DJ-707M Four-Channel

Featherweight Party Champion

This controller is a powerhouse with mobility. Roland

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Why It Made The Cut: All style concerns aside, the DJ’s job is to throw a good party. This lightweight but powerful controller from Roland has everything most working DJs could want.

Specs:

  • Inputs: 4 stereo RCA / phono line switchable, 2 XLR, 2 ¼ inch, 1 ⅛ inch
  • Outputs: Balanced XLR or RCA, ¼ inch, RCA
  • Built In Audio Interface: Yes
  • Jog Wheels: Yes
  • Number of Pads: 8
  • USB Hub: Yes
  • Dimensions: 13.03 x 18.66 x 2.87 inches
  • Weight: 7.7 pounds

Pros:

  • Can function as a DVS controller with paid Serato DVS extension
  • Excellent sound quality
  • 4 band EQ and sound processing with routing for dealing with acoustics in various mobile spaces
  • Solid microphone system and mixing possibilities for musical performers or mixing karaoke
  • Very light

Cons: 

  • Lighter material feels more fragile
  • Jog wheels are small and feel somewhat restrictive
  • DVS can have issues with scratching

The mobile DJs job is to set up and get the party going, wherever the party might be. Oftentimes mobile DJs arrive alone with hundreds of pounds of gear. It’s their job to respond to the space, to set up sound, and to deal with acoustical issues. At weddings, DJs are usually the ones operating the microphone for speeches, or EQing a guitar soloist, then switching back to dance music for the main party. With so many roles to fill and so much gear to haul, what could be better than a lightweight controller that somehow does it all? 

The Roland DJ-707M Four-Channel has all the tools most working mobile DJs need. With two XLR microphone inputs, you’ll be in the party as a personality, and well equipped for impromptu speeches by the father of the bride. The generous line and RCA inputs are managed with volume controls, effects, and EQ routing throughout the whole system. Roland put special emphasis on sound design with this model, allowing you to play sound tech as needed, with three mixable zones of outputs. For DVS inclined DJs, this device offers functionality with a paid Serato extension, though there are some issues with cutting out.

While the light weight of this machine is certainly a boon for traveling DJs, it does come with a build cost. The device is primarily made of plastic. It’s not designed with scratching in mind, and though the jog wheels are capable, their small size isn’t ideal. While this device lacks style, it delivers very well for mobile working DJs. With an extraordinary set of audio processing features, good mic support, a decent FX rack, and a lightweight build, it’s an all-around excellent toolkit.

Best Experimental: Ableton Push 2 Controller Instrument

New Tools

This electronic music tool offers an intuitive and extraordinary level of power over the Ableton suite. Ableton

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Why It Made The Cut: While Ableton is more often used for electronic and house music performance than club DJing, Ableton Link now allows you to sync your devices into Serato or TRAKTOR, giving you lots of new ways to control the music.

Specs:

  • Inputs: 1 USB, 2 Pedals
  • Outputs: USB
  • Built In Audio Interface: Yes
  • Jog Wheels: No
  • Number of Pads: 64
  • USB Hub: Yes
  • Dimensions: 14.88 x 11.96 x 1.02 inches
  • Weight: 6 pounds

Pros:

  • Incredible versatility as a sampler and digital instrument
  • 64 pads to sequence drums, effects, samples, or use as triggers
  • Ableton Link works with Serato and TRAKTOR

Cons:

  • Won’t work for most DJs as a standalone DJ controller
  • Will require more expensive Ableton Live software for its full potential
  • Will most likely require a seperate mixer to be paired with other devices

Many DJs might balk at including a device like the Push on this list. However, times are changing. With Ableton Link offering beat sync to software like Serato and TRAKTOR, it’s easier to blend your DJ software and digital audio workstation than ever before. If you’re looking for a device that streamlines traditional DJing, then stop right here, this device is not for you. However, if you want to build a hybrid toolkit for production, live sampling, and DJing that offers you the experimental power to truly warp what’s possible in a DJ set, consider adding the Ableton Push 2 Controller to your kit.

With 64 pads that can function in beat step mode, as drum triggers, and as melodic steps, or be mapped to samples, along with endless control of your Ableton session through a wide array of knobs, the possibilities are legitimately limitless. Used by artists and producers such as Four Tet and Flying Lotus, Ableton Live is world-class musical creation software. While many producers DJ their material from Ableton by digitally crossfading scenes, it can also be used to create music in real time with a wide array of connected instruments and samplers, or be paired with analog mixers and instruments. Incorporating Ableton with software like Serato and TRAKTOR means that you can now bring endless creative possibilities into your DJ sets. This can be incorporated into a hybrid turntable, laptop, and Push 2 set up with a mixer as shown here, or rigged in surprising other ways.

As a sole DJ Controller the Push 2 may require you to work from digital scenes in a way that is less fluid than what most DJs would prefer. But when it’s combined with a mixer and turntable or paired with Serato to be used as a sampler, this device truly shines for its responsive, powerful sampling, and limitless creation tools.

Things to Consider Before Buying A DJ Controller

Goals And Needs

Are you a mobile DJ working weddings? Are you a nightclub DJ in Los Angeles? Are you looking to build a toolkit that allows you to mix from two turntables and a computer library while mixing in a digital audio workstation and a synthesizer? Maybe you’re just starting out. Like most electronic instruments, DJ gear is highly technical, and with high price tags, you most likely need to figure out what you want before you buy and try. Before you buy a DJ controller it would be worth it to read up on what you want it to do. A beginner digital controller with Serato or TRAKTOR will get you spinning in no time, but if you have more advanced needs or aspirations, ask yourself what your goals are before you buy.

Vinyl

While many controllers with multiple channels are compatible with using separate turntables or CDJ systems to control your tracks, scratch with, or sample from, some are better at it than others. If you want a truly excellent system for this it’s usually a good idea to shop with this in mind. 

Physical Build

If you’re going to be hauling your DJ controller to events and clubs, make sure you get something that you can reliably carry. It’s especially important to mobile DJ’s that they have something that’s versatile and light, as it’s often their job to supply hundreds of pounds of other equipment as well. It’s also important to note the connectivity that your device provides. For club-ready kits make sure that you have the outputs you need. Some users may also require multiple zones of outputs; this is especially important if the controller will frequently be hooked up to PAs and speaker sets.

FAQs

Q: What’s the difference between a turntable and a DJ controller?

In the past many DJs would use two turntables or CDJ players with a mixer in between them. This way, while one turntable played a track, the DJ could ready the second turntable for play, line up the track, and cross fade it into play using the mixer. Modern DJ controllers often work as a combination of mixer and turntable, using spinning disks that simulate spinning vinyl to control audio play, and crossfading between digital tracks.

Q: What is DVS?

Digital vinyl systems allow DJs to control their software with the hardware that DJs have been using for generations. This means using turntables or CD DJ systems with time coded discs to control the software.

Q: What is CDJ?

A generation of performers used CD-powered DJ systems. Many of the functions of modern DJ controllers are based on these CDJs. These are often still used with time coded CDs in DVS systems. 

Q: What is the best DJ software?

There is no de facto best DJ software. There are many options out there, but our favorites are Serato, rekordbox, and TRAKTOR. 

Q: Do all DJ controllers work with all DJ software?

No. Some work with multiple DJ softwares, but many are designed specifically for one software system. Some controllers, like the Pioneer DDJ-1000 (rekordbox) and Pioneer DDJ-1000 SRT (Serato), come in different versions for different software packages. 

Final Thoughts

DJ controllers come with an exciting and deep pool of options. Choosing the best controller can be tricky. In the end, your controller should reflect what you want to do. If you’re a mobile party DJ who travels all the time, consider the Roland DJ-707M Four-Channel. If you’re a vinyl head but want the ease of digital, or you need the feel of CDJs in your hands to really get into the flow, consider the Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol Z2 DJ Mixer as your DVS hub. I think the most exciting space in DJ tools in 2021 comes with the intersection of devices like the Push 2 Controller that use Ableton Link to warp and effect real time vinyl samples inside of a live mix in Serato or TRAKTOR. It’s innovative technology like this that gets me excited for the next generation of DJs. 

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