CDJ vs Controller – Which Is Better?

CDJ vs Controller – Which Is Better?

So, you want to become a DJ but don’t really want to ruin those nice vinyls. Well, you’re in luck, as most modern DJs hardly rely on the old vinyl decks, but electronic and digital turntables with mixers!

In more laymen terms, this means most modern DJs use MP3s or CDs, and not vinyl. This being said, if you have any passing interest in being a DJ, you may have heard about the CDJ vs controller debate.

But, what is a CDJ? What is a DJ Controller? Are they the same thing? And is one better than the other?

In this article, I’ll give you the rundown on both CDJs and DJ controllers, looking at the pros, the cons, and comparing the two to see which one will be right for you!

cdj

What Is A CDJ?

CDJs are quite old and venerable among DJ professionals. By “old”, I mean 1990s old since the first CDJs started to appear during this time.

So, what is a CDJ? Imagine if you will a DJ turntable, but digital instead of physical. That’s a CDJ. They’re quite large and bulky devices, with a giant jog wheel in the center and plenty of buttons for faders, touch strips, etc.

Originally designed to work with CDs, many will now accept flash drives and even SD cards depending on the model. This allows changing music on the fly, much like the old turntables, and in fact, many clubs now have a CDJ setup along with a traditional turntable. Now, as for setup, twp CDJs are required, and both need to be connected to a mixer.

This leads me to the next part of CDJs, and that’s the price. These are not cheap in the slightest. A single CDJ will cost you nearly 1,000 dollars.

Trying the second-hand market, which I recommend, you can find CDJs for around five hundred dollars. Remember, you need two CDJs attached to a mixer, so going with CDJs is very costly.

On the flip-side, CDJs are well known for being durable. Trust me, they can take a beating. They also don’t tend to skip or produce any static, and the audio quality is magnificent.

There is a very reason why they have such a hefty price tag, as a CDJ set-up is considered “professional” after all, every self-respecting club will have a CDJ set up.

controller

What Is A DJ Controller?

Now that I’ve talked about a CDJ, let’s look at the DJ Controller, other times just called a controller. These are around the same size of a CDJ, although other times they can be quite big, and look the result of smashing two CDJ together. Or looking like someone took a traditional table and made it compressed; two jog wheels, faders, touch strips, the works.

DJ Controllers are relatively new, popping up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, How a mixer work is that it requires another device such as a laptop computer, but newer models will work with tablets and smartphones.

A controller is microprocessor-based, and you need the second device to run the required software. The controller sends signals to the other device to do the mixing for it and then plays the resulting mix.

Of course, the DJ has full control over how they want the music mixed because as I said before, it’s functionally similar to a CDJ set up or turntables; it’s just a lot easier to use.

Which is why controllers have become very popular with newer DJs or those who want to learn to be a DJ, but at the same time don’t want to spend thousands for equipment either.

In turn, there is a stigma around DJ controllers and their users specifically because of how easy they are to you. Remember as a kid when you would go to a school dance or school event?

The DJ there was someone that looked remarkably bored, staring at their laptop screen or checking their phone? That was a controller they were using.

Due to how inexpensive they are, a controller isn’t as heavy as a CDJ and while that’s not exactly a sign of bad quality, controllers do have a reputation of skipping or playing bad audio.

That said, most modern high-quality models lack these issues and only run you around two hundred dollars if that.

Comparing And Contrasting The Controller and CDJ

For this section, I’ll start with the pros and cons of each. I already covered the pros and cons in their respective sections, so it’ll be more of the highlights.

CDJ

Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Viewed as the “professional choice”
  • Clear playback
  • Durable
  • Uses CDs, flash drives, MP3s, and even SD cards

Cons:

  • Very expensive; one CDJ costs over a 1k new and you need two, along with a mixer
  • Durable but heavy
  • You still need practice and skill to get the best out of them

DJ Controller

Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Great for both starters and professional DJs
  • Newer models have excellent playback and are affordable
  • Not heavy to carry
  • Uses software for mixing, but still allows you greater control over the end result

Cons:

  • Early, and therefore really cheap, models tend to have playback issues
  • Not that durable
  • Requires specific software to run, and a second device to run said software
  • Stigma against users of controllers

So those are the pros and cons, now how about that comparison? Well, in all honestly, they both do the same thing by allowing you to be a DJ but without having to actual scratch vinyl. So I’m going to look more into the stigma, which will show off the perceived downsides and upsides of both systems.

Remember what I said in the controller section about the bored man staring at the laptop while a bunch of kids dance along to whatever is the popular choice of music at the time? That’s essentially the stigma behind the controllers.

When the bar of entry is reduced, just about anyone can be a DJ. For many, a DJ is one that scratches vinyl or at the very least uses a CDJ; they engage the crowd and know how to mix music.

This stigma overlooks that using a controller isn’t as easy as it sounds. Yes, a software is doing the mixing for you, but saying that anyone can DJ with a controller is like anyone with two legs can ride a bike.

This isn’t a false statement, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have plenty of people having no clue how to properly work a bike and will end up riding straight into a ditch; likely screaming the entire way.

using a dj controller

A controller still takes time and practice to use, even longer to produce music that isn’t awful. On top of that, only specific software can be used with a controller. Software that the machine isn’t built for will either not work, or produce extremely horrendous music.

For older machines where the software isn’t updated anymore, a DJ will have to familiarize themselves with programming to get the software to still run properly.

Now, this isn’t to say that I’m completely blasting on CDJs either. Those are actual, professional machines that take years of hard work and practice to master.

Sure, they might not use physical music sources anymore, but that doesn’t make then any less of a challenge. On top of the challenge of dealing with mixing the music, a DJ will also have to engage the crowd.

This is another stigma of controllers vs CDJs, where controllers are always seen as those DJs as school events who just don’t want to be there.

If you want to be a professional DJ or have any sort of passing interest in being a DJ which is why I assume you’re here, the crowd has to be pumped and the responsibility is on you to do that.

Which One Is Better?

All said and done, is the controller or the CDJ the better device for a DJ? Well, as I said, both provide you with the same payout; mixing music. Therefore, in my opinion, neither is better. CDJs are viewed as more professional, but are more expensive and take time and practice.

Controllers, meanwhile, are cheaper and easier to use although it still requires plenty of time and practice to master.

Now some might argue you’ll want to pick either a CDJ or controller based on your interests or if you want to play professional or not. I personally don’t think this is good advice. In my opinion, every DJ should start with a controller and then work their way up to a CDJ; some professional DJs just continue to use controllers and bypass CDJs!

I say this because as an aspiring DJ you want to actually get some gigs. Yes, you can invest in two CDJs and a mixer and lug those around, but if you don’t have any gigs then all that investment money goes down the drain. With a controller, you can start acting as a DJ in local events and hone both your skills in mixing and your skills in pumping the crowd up.

When you start getting better gigs, or gigs that look more professional, then start looking into CDJs. Even then, some venues have their own systems set in place, so you might not even need them.

Again, I’m not trying to bash on CDJ setups, because they’re really good. But it’s just unfair to praise one setup and bash another.

At the end of the day, both systems will do what you want. But the key to being a great DJ and not just some mediocre one is how you can mix the music and get the crowd pumped!

Final Thoughts

How you go about it, be it with a CDJ setup or a controller setup is based solely on what you can afford and which works for you. Just because CDJs are more expensive doesn’t make them better. Nor are controllers worse for being cheaper.

Blake Gibbs

I have been a professional DJ for almost 10 years. In that time I've played a lot of gigs and gone through a whole bunch of equipment. My new goal is to spread my knowledge of DJ products with the world through this website!