REVIEWED: Pioneer DJ CDJ-3000
In the pink noise of a blur that is 2020, Pioneer DJ drops the brand new CDJ-3000 into the crosshairs of the DJ world. Sure, there's literally bugger all events going on to use it at, but that also means there is more talk about this new player than any others which have come before it. This deck isn't something which should be taken lightly, as it represents an evolutionary change to the industry-standard CDJ.
The first question that needs to be addressed is why is it called a CDJ at all, as there is no CD drive?! Pioneer DJ's press material is pretty confident in their response: The CDJ moniker has become a standard reference for those who need a pair of something to sit aside a mixer. Like hoovers are to vacuum cleaners, CDJs are the dependable multitools used around the world to deliver music to the masses. From my perspective, I will jump straight in here and answer the question: at over £2000 a pop, why doesn't it play CDs? Simple; because it doesn't need to! The reality is that the CD drive on the previous model was the least used feature. I mean, vinyl sales are higher than CDs right now. So if we were going off the sales stats it should play 12”s! Obviously, that’s not practical, but the fact remains that it makes sense both that the Pioneer DJ team have retained the iconic CDJ name and that they have got rid of the actual CD drive.
Now this elephant in the room has been addressed nice and early, let's focus on what the CDJ-3000 does have to offer. At first glimpse, it doesn't look generationally different from its forefather, the CDJ-2000NXS2. Which I think is a good thing. The CDJ-2000 has been around since 2009, albeit with a couple of updates along the way. It has a tried and tested interface that DJs the world over are familiar with. This new deck isn't about reinventing the wheel. Instead it's about improving and refining workflow, speed and performance. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!
That said, the one difference which jumps out immediately is the size of the high-resolution full colour touch screen. It's like a CDJ-2000NXS2 with the screen you never realised you wanted. At 9”, is it is 2” larger than the one on the previous model, occupying a significant chunk more real estate without overpowering the unit's proportions.
Setting the player up is pretty straightforward, and all the connections you’d expect are present and correct. On the back panel there’s an IEC mains input (with V-Lock to prevent the power being accidentally disconnected mid-set), both analogue RCA and digital coaxial outputs, a LAN socket for Pro DJ Link connectivity (Pioneer DJ's branded way of saying 'local area network connected media players’) and a USB B socket for the HID mode. Up top, there’s a USB port as well as an SD card slot.
Having hooked everything up, I switch the CDJ on, and it instantly comes alive. I put my rekordbox-prepped USB stick in and BAM! It's there. My little Sandisk stick crammed with 20,000 tracks literally appears in moments. This is where the next talking point of the CDJ-3000 comes in: it's MPU.
This MPU (or Multi-Processor Unit to us mortals) is one of the CDJ-3000's ace cards. The CDJ-2000NXS had an older DSP-driven architecture, initially conceived for 2009's launch, and times and technology have moved on a long way since then. The new MPU design is a complete overhaul of everything going on under the lid of the player and is designed both to allow new advanced features and to ensure stable performance and a lightning quick workflow. Quite simply it is on an entirely different level to any DJ media player created by Pioneer DJ, Denon DJ, or any other competitors until now. It's hard to convey how smooth the flow of information appears as I navigate my track play history and library. It's like it's from the future but still feels familiar.
When I read the marketing bumf I discovered that there isn't just a dual core processor or even a quad core inside the CDJ-3000, its MPU has one of each! For the nerds amongst us, it contains two ARM Cortex processors, a 1.5GHz dual-core A57 and a 1.2 GHz quad-core A53. Having begun to realise just how powerful this piece of kit is, I decided to throw some lossless files at it. Each track is 80-110MB and they load within moments. I don't know precisely how the MPU does it, but it loads these mammoth tracks, as well as 2-hour long premixes, quicker than anything else I have ever tested.
Sound quality is also as you'd expect from a player destined for the world’s biggest club booths and festival stages, with internal audio calculation processing to 96kHz/32-bit floating in all playable audio formats. The difference is particularly noticeable when time-stretching/key shifting, where Pioneer DJ’s advanced new audio processing technology makes a real difference. Even playing my standard MP3 tracks, the CDJ-3000 sounds noticeably better than my CDJ-2000NXS2 setup through the DJM-900NXS2 mixer. I just wish I had a DJM-V10 to review with it (*cough*)!
The next noticeable change is the improvement of the Ethernet connection, now running at a gigabit, meaning you can run six… yes six CDJ-3000s from one USB stick. This is a feature which I personally would never, ever, use because A) I don't have six hands B) I don't have the creative ability and C) I would prefer to buy a mint MK2 Golf GTI if I had the £14K that it would cost! However, I’m sure the Zabelias and EZs of this world will be grateful for a setup like this.
The gigabit ethernet DOES actually benefit me in a couple of ways, though. It means that it is now possible to stack waveforms from connected players! As a result, you can view the waveforms from both decks on one player, making it possible to align beats by eye. If you come from the Serato laptop generation like me, monitoring the waveforms of both tracks next to each other is a luxury you take for granted and the CDJ-3000 manages this on a standalone player with no screen stuttering or hesitation whatsoever. It just handles it!
Now let's talk more about that screen, which really is a joy to use. It's 150% brighter than the CDJ-2000NXS2 screen, which could already illuminate the faces of the DJ and his/her groupies in the booth! With a larger screen and superior definition, the CDJ-3000 can display an extra 30% of your library or track information. New single touch gestures for the screen also mean you can swipe or slide up and down your library to find tracks even in the deepest corners of your media. However, the Pioneer DJ scroller is still present and works flawlessly in tandem with these gestures. The other advantage of this larger screen is the ability to display a waveform overview of all your tracks. This is especially useful if you have multiple variations of a track; the ability to view high, mid and low frequencies at a glance can steer you to the track you want to play at that particular moment.
Next up, let’s talk about two new features of the CDJ-3000 that really are game-changers: Touch Preview and Cue Link. Once again made possible by the innovative MPU architecture, Touch Preview allows you to preview tracks at the touch of your finger, playing the track direct from the library to your headphones without having to load it to a player. Cue Link then allows you to press and hold your finger on any part of the waveform for the currently loaded track and hear it in your headphones, even while it is playing out through the main output. This means that you can hear your mix-out point before getting to it, whilst the track is playing. Powerful stuff! Other media players on the market offer preview functionality, but I haven't used one so immediate and intuitive. However, it is important to point out, this feature is only currently available if you have either a Pioneer DJ DJM-900NXS2 or DJM-V10 mixer.
One of the few changes to the layout of the unit’s controls can be found in the hot cues department. Increased from four to eight, they now take pride of place between the bottom of the screen and the top of the jog wheel. Both their location and flexible functionality – being configurable as either hot cues or loops – is inspired by the setup on Pioneer DJ’s popular XDJ-RX2 and XDJ-XZ all-in-one units. I think this will be a move welcomed by all CDJ-2000NXS2 owners, as toggling between two banks of four was clunky. I also think the position of these buttons now makes perfect sense, as they don't get in the way when using the jog wheel.
Speaking of the jog wheel, it’s so much smoother than anything else which has come before it. Resistance is fully adjustable, as you'd expect, but the number of sensors calculating movement has increased substantially. The result of this is that the platter latency is HALF of what it was on the CDJ-2000NXS2. Half latency or double accuracy - either way, it's twice as good as what we have all been using! Another upgrade is the introduction of a full colour on jog display, similar to those found on Pioneer DJ’s controllers (DDJ-800/1000 and XDJ-XZ). It can be used to display immediate information such as track time remaining, BPM, pitch and percentage or simply to liven up your booth with album artwork!
Another notable enhancement is the CDJ-3000’s Key Sync feature that will get DJs who like to mix in key very excited. It is activated by a dedicated button located alongside Beat Sync and Master. It automatically adjusts the loaded track to match the key of the track on the master deck. This is very handy when using vocal a cappellas, allowing them to play over any track, regardless of its key, without the need to manipulate in production software beforehand. It is also possible to use the Key Shift feature on the touch screen to manually shift the key up or down.
When it comes to the build quality, Pioneer DJ has, once again, nailed it. Just like its predecessor, this deck is built to withstand the pressures and rigours of being on the road every day and in use every night. As well as the jog wheel upgrades mentioned earlier, the Play, Cue and Hot Cue buttons are now backed with surface-mount switches. This means that not only is the response improved but the buttons are set to last 30% longer than the older setup. Finally, the top plate of the CDJ-3000 is manufactured from aluminium, which is both lightweight and extremely strong.
The CDJ-3000 unlocks rekordbox dj's Performance Mode on a Mac/PC, which means you can play from a library on your laptop should you wish to do so. There is also more power in the rekordbox ecosystem, should you wish to harness it, in the shape of the rekordbox for iOS app. Used in tandem with a Dropbox account, it allows you to store and manipulate all of your tracks' metadata – such as cue points, loops, library location and grid information – on the go. You can then connect the phone DIRECTLY to a CDJ-3000 and playout the tracks. Sure, it can seem gimmicky, but to have a backup source of music in the form of your phone, which is with you all the time, sounds like a great idea to me! It's only currently available on Apple devices, but you can use phones as old as iPhone 5s, so it's an excellent way to put that old phone sitting in your desk drawer to good use!
This wouldn’t be a complete review if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that there are a few features available on Denon DJ’s Prime players that are conspicuous by their absence from the CDJ-3000. Most noticeable is the lack of a second ‘layer’ to allow one unit to play two tracks so that a four-deck setup can be created with two pieces of hardware. While the processing power of the mighty MPU could no doubt have been utilised for this, Pioneer DJ have chosen to keep things simple. Which makes sense; at the big clubs and festivals – which this player is aimed at – if you want four decks, you put four decks on your rider! Another one is Wi-Fi connectivity, but in all seriousness, what truly pro DJ wants to risk streaming their music at a gig?! Finally, there’s the lack of 'mass analysis' onboard, but – again – why would you need to do that? If the mighty and powerful rekordbox 6 is a free download, why not use it to analyse your tracks beforehand? That said, Pioneer DJ have promised that they are going to make their new giant MPU earn its crust and that exciting new features will be added via firmware update in the not too distant future.
So, to wrap things up, I believe everything that Pioneer DJ has done with the CDJ-3000 makes perfect sense. Everything from the ground-up redesign under the hood to retaining the established Pioneer DJ workflow that has kept the CDJ at the heart of every club booth around the world for the past two decades. Sure, we would have loved to have seen these 'appear' at festivals and in club DJ booths, but thanks to #covidlife, this launch has been an entirely virtual one. Some call it bad timing and others say it is in poor taste while the entire live events sector is at a standstill. But, let’s be fair; the last time the DJ booth had a significant upgrade was when the CDJ-1000MK3 became the CDJ-2000 in 2009. The intention back then was to make our professional and creative lives better, which it has done for over a decade. Now, as professional DJs look to get ahead of the curve when we get back to normal, both professionally and creatively, I personally think that the CDJ-3000 couldn't have come at a better time!
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 104, Pages 68-70.