Pioneer DDJ-SZ Review: The Pinnacle of All-In-One DJ Controllers?

With the DDJ-SZ in stores now, Pioneer have clearly set out to produce the ultimate all-in-one DJ controller for Serato DJ. Have they succeeded? We put it to the test in our review, watch the full piece and read more details inside.


The Good

  • Incredibly feature-rich
  • Professional build and sound quality
  • Great jog wheels
  • Just light enough to be truly portable

The Bad

  • Expensive
  • Won’t fit in many DJ booths
  • Lack of post-fader Serato DJ effects

The Bottom Line: In many ways, the DDJ-SZ ($1999 in the DJTT webstore) is the best controller on the market. It certainly won’t be suitable for everyone, though.

The Pioneer DDJ-SZ on the review table

INTRODUCTION

Half-close your eyes, and look at the DDJ-SZ; looks familiar, right? At a glance, the SZ could easily be mistaken for a full CDJ/DJM Nexus setup, and so comparisons must naturally be drawn between the two. The SZ is a very different animal though, and on closer inspection shares more in common with Pioneer’s previous flagship controller, the DDJ-SX.

The SX proved to be massively popular, and rightly so. I own one myself, and it still stands up as a superb controller to this day, almost 2 years after release. So to find that, in so many respects, the SZ feels like a scaled up SX, is no disappointment. The layout is very, very similar, but things like the cue/play buttons, the loop controls, and the performance pads are just a touch bigger. For fat-fingered DJs like myself, that’s a definite improvement.

One area which hasn’t been fed steroids is the pitch faders, which were already a very good size on the SX, and prove equally responsive on the SZ. Long mixes should not pose a problem on this one, although I’d still like to see a +/-6% pitch range option in Serato DJ available across all their supported hardware.

JOG WHEELS ON THE DDJ-SZDDJ-SZ Jogwheel closeup

The main reason for the increase in footprint is those full-size (in CDJ terms) conductive jog wheels, which are pretty wonderful. They feature the traditional central display found on CDJs, which allows for much more accuracy when pulling back to a cue marker; I always found the limited number of ‘segments’ on the SX display just a little bit too vague when doing that. You also get a red countdown bar to the next cue, which is handy if you’re trying to get away from staring at your laptop.

One thing which must be mentioned when discussing the jogs on the SZ, as it was pretty common knowledge in the DJ community when it first launched; there was a confirmed hardware issue with the jog wheels in the earliest batches of this controller, which sometimes caused them to be unresponsive. It was narrowed down to a particular chip, and is apparently resolved. Certainly, during the week I spent with the SZ, I was paying very close attention to see if I could reproduce the issues, and not once did I experience any problem with the jogs in any respect. They were very quick to respond to my touch, and I never lost control of the playhead at any point with Serato DJ.

The use of conductive technology in the jog wheels, as opposed to what is effectively a simple ‘switch’ in regular CDJ platters, does lead to a slightly different feel in use. It’s hard to describe; there’s just absolutely no ‘give’, as they feel completely solid, and their momentum feels different. It’s not objectively better, or worse, but if you’re expecting the platters to feel exactly the same as those on CDJs, you might be surprised.

When it comes to scratching, and overall control, the large size is a definite bonus compared to the SX and other controllers with smaller jog wheels. Spinning platters, as found on the Numark NS7 II, the natural competitor of the SZ, will certainly be the preference of many people, but it’s 2014, and I know a number of great DJs, who’ve been working for years, and have never even touched a spinning platter in their lives, having grown up using solely CDJs. So unless you’re a truly hardcore turntablist, I think the static platters of the SZ will do the job very nicely.

SERATO DJ INTEGRATION

Serato's cue points and the DDJ-SZ

The SZ was built from the ground up to work with Serato DJ, and it shows. The hardware and software are incredibly tightly integrated, and the performance of the two in unison is superb. It’s as much a flagship controller for Serato as it is for Pioneer.

All of Serato DJ’s best features are represented here, with the performance pads being a particular upgrade from the SX, as they are now multicoloured, which means not only is it much easier to discern which mode they are in at a glance, but also offering the ability to set your own custom colours for cue points, which can be used to differentiate different types of cues (intro, drop, outro etc).

The loop roll, slicer, and SP6 modes all work as expected, and it’s good to see the cue loop functionality from the DDJ-SP1 appear here, which allows you to activate a loop at the same time as hitting a cue. It offers some interesting creative possibilities.

My only disappointment with the pad section is that, as seems to be standard with SDJ now, the auto beat loops are relegated solely to their own section of the controller. Most of the older Serato controllers, like my Vestax VCI-380 and Novation Twitch, which were designed for Itch, tended to have pads assigned to each loop length, which made it very easy to loop a particular number of beats without thinking too hard. Because SDJ’s looping and loop rolls are tied together, it’s easy to do a loop roll flourish, then accidentally hit a very short autoloop with the loop controls on the SZ, throwing your mix off. That has caught me out many times with the SX.

The pads have a different, stiffer feel than those on the NS7 II, but are very responsive and nice to use. Overall, the pad section is a very comprehensive highlight of the SZ.

ALL THE INS AND OUTS

pioneer-ddj-sz-front-back

Anyone who has hooked up a DDJ-SX to software other than Serato DJ might have been surprised to find that the interface in it only features a limited 2 in/out soundcard; whilst that isn’t a disaster in many respects, it does mean that DVS control with an SX will never happen with it.

Not so with the SZ. The units includes not one, but two, soundcards, each with inputs and outputs for 4 decks, plus a dedicated channel for recording your mix. What that means in use, is not only can you hook up turntables or CD players to control any or all of the four software decks via timecode, but you can also connect two computers to the SZ simultaneously, switching seamlessly between them at will.

It’s the first time we’ve seen such a feature in a controller, although it’s been a feature of Rane’s Serato products for a while now. And in practice, it works superbly. It’s not quite as flexible as Rane’s solution, as you can only swap either the entire left or right side of the controller in one go, whereas on the Rane 64, for example, you can assign each channel to each computer on an individual basis. But it makes switching between different DJs a breeze, and back-to-back sets a very simple proposition.

pioneer-ddj-sz-dvs-connection

The DVS setup works perfectly, and in use, it feels no different from my regular Serato DJ setup for DVS, with a Rane SL3 box, apart from there being a massive controller sat between the turntables instead of a regular 12” mixer.

One word on the recording function – I was happy to find that setting the interface (in Pioneer’s setting utility) to record the whole mix, really did mean just that. Audio from both computers, the mic input, external sources, ALL gets recorded, on either computer. That’s a real bonus compared to the limited recording capabilities of many SDJ controllers.

Using the mixer section without software, standalone, proves to be pretty cool too. Personally, I’d have liked phono level inputs on all the channels, as opposed to just the two on the outside, but that’s personal taste.

CAUSE AND FX

ddj-sz-color-fx

There are 3 FX sections on the SZ in total. Firstly, there is the standard arrangement of 4 knobs at the top of the controller on each side for SDJ’s Izotope FX. They work as well as always, although I was sad to discover they are pre-fader only, which is unusual for an SDJ controller. My guess is that the reason for that is related to the arrangement of the soundcards for DVS, but is still a disappointment, as I’m very into post-fader echoes and delays, etc.

Thankfully, the new Colour FX section goes some way to make up for that, featuring as it does, and post-fader echo of it’s own. As with all of Pioneer’s colour FX, these are simple, one-knob controlled FX, with the echo, jet (a kind of phaser), filter, and pitch effects all doing the job with the minimum of fuss. As each channel has it’s own colour FX control, there’s no way to have the echo tail continue after cutting with the crossfader, only the upfader, but I can live with that.

The third FX section contains the oscillator FX. These are sounds generated by the hardware, and were the subject of some derision when first announced, containing, as it does, an ‘instant air horn’ option. At it’s best, this section makes some interesting noises, but you’ll probably tire of them pretty quickly, and at it’s worst, it sounds like one of those battery-powered keyrings you could buy in the 1980s, with a police siren, machine gun noise, etc.

Between the Izotope FX, and the Colour FX, though, there should be enough else here to keep the most FX-heavy DJs happy. It’s also nice that the colour FX can also be applied to the master, SP6, and external inputs on each channel, as well as the microphone section too. Speaking of which…

DDJ-SX REDUX

As cool as it was, the DDJ-SX was not without a few issues of its own. The microphone input, for one, was limited in that to use it, you had to sacrifice a mixer channel, losing a deck. There were also many reports of users finding the gain stage of the mic pre-amp to be far too low. On the SZ, you’ve got two separate mic inputs, each with it’s own level control, and EQ for both. Much more flexible. I also tried the inputs with 3 different mics, and found the preamps to be absolutely fine. So I think Pioneer have got that nailed with the SZ.

Another issue some users had with the SX was the fact that the touchstrips, used to scrub through tracks, could potentially be activated by mistake when trying to use the FX controls situated directly above them. Now, personally, I’ve never had that problem myself, in all the gigs I’ve done with my SX, but it was clearly an annoyance for many. So it’s good to see that the touchstrip can now be locked during playback, meaning you have to stop the deck to use it. (That can be toggled on or off in the controller’s onboard setup menu).

pioneer-ddj-sz-crossfader

The crossfader in the SX was decidedly unspectacular; nothing wrong with it as such, but a really basic fader, which didn’t take a ton of abuse. Whilst that can now be replaced with a Mini Innofader, the SZ avoids the need for that by including Pioneer’s Magvel fader; a super smooth magnetic, long-life unit, with tension adjust. It’s great.

Pioneer have definitely responded to user feedback from their previous controllers, and deserve praise for that.

SOUND AND BUILD QUALITY

The aforementioned audio interfaces in the SZ sound absolutely superb. Easily up there with the ones found in Pioneer’s DJM series of mixers. When combined with the plethora of physical ins and outs of the hardware, you’ve got a controller which will happily sit in the most demanding of audio environments.

What’s remarkable about the SZ is not how solid it feels (very), but in how comparatively light it feels considering how large it is. Weighing in at around 23lbs, that’s over 10lbs lighter than the NS7 II, which feels every ounce of it’s 34lb heft. Unlike the Numark, I could genuinely see myself carrying the SZ around on a regular basis, more so if I found a suitably well padded bag for it (and if Decksaver get round to bringing out a model to fit), rather than thinking I’d absolutely need a flightcase, as with the NS7 II.

Like the SX, the SZ features a full metal faceplate, but I was pleased to see that it is now separated into three sections. Like some other users, I’ve found the all-in-one plate on my SX has warped slightly over time, so having separate pieces should serve to prevent that on the SZ, and make replacements easier in case of damage.

CROSSING THE STREAMS: DDJ-SZ WITH TRAKTOR

Despite being such a Serato DJ-focused device, the SZ is still compatible with other software… Up to a point.

During the review period I tried the SZ with Traktor 2.6.8, using Artwork’s mapping, as found HERE>>. It’s a fun mapping with instant gratification effects and stuff all built in, and overall, it performed well. Traktor can address all the inputs and outputs fine (although it is not Scratch certified, of course).

Then, the night before my review unit was due to go back, Pioneer also released their own Traktor mapping, complete with a firmware update to match, and so I got a chance to try that for a couple of hours too.

It is certainly a slightly bizarre experience having two laptops connected to a single controller, one using Traktor and one using SDJ, but amazingly, it works! The USB switching is just as smooth as with a pair of computers running SDJ. Impressive.

What’s less impressive, is the jog wheel performance in Traktor. Now, there’s nobody to blame for that except Native Instruments, Pioneer aren’t at fault there. Unless NI stop being so insular, and start working with third-party manufacturers properly, that’s going to be the case for all non-NI hardware. Midi platter control will simply never be as good as proper native support, and the SZ is a clear demonstration of that. The lovely tight control found with SDJ is completely lacking in Traktor, with cue points slipping, and a general feeling of ‘wonkiness’.

For some people, jog wheel performance is not really an issue, but I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone spend $2000 on this controller just to use with Traktor. If jog wheels really don’t matter to you, that’s fine, but then I must question the logic of buying something where so much thought (and your money) has gone into offering such great platters in the first place.

WHO IS THE DDJ-SZ FOR?

The DDJ-SZ (top) versus the DDJ-SX (below)
The DDJ-SZ (top) versus the DDJ-SX (below)

This is the big question with the SZ. I massively enjoyed spending time with it; and if it suits your style, and wallet, there’s so much fun to be had with such a comprehensive, and unique, feature set.

The large size is a part of that – it really feels and performs like professional kit, and you’ll certainly look like a ‘pro’ when standing behind it at a gig. But what kind of gig? I have had enough struggles fitting my SX into many of the bar & club booths I play in, and the extra width of the SZ would make it a total non-starter for those. For DJs like me, who usually have to work with or around existing installed equipment, something smaller makes a lot more sense.

One segment of the market which I’m sure will jump at the SZ is mobile DJs, and rightly so. The huge amount of input options, mixer channels, and good mic section mean that it’s ideal for a mobile jock who wants ‘the full package’ whilst not carrying round too much heavy kit. The SZ is certainly very portable considering it’s size.

I’ve heard it suggested that the two USB ports makes the SZ ideal for bar and small club installs. I don’t believe that’s a smart choice, frankly – for the SZ to be truly ‘plug and play’ for any DJ, they’ll need to be a user of the current version of Serato DJ, and that’s simply not a massive proportion of DJs in the world. There’s still a large number of Scratch Live users who have yet to migrate, before we even count the USB, CD, Traktor, VirtualDJ, and MixVibes users. Sure, you can plug extra sources into the SZ, but if the controller aspect isn’t going to be used all the time, a venue owner can save a lot of cash by just buying a regular mixer. Even if a venue doesn’t want to splash out on a full Nexus rig, they’ll still be better off with a pair of CDJ-850s and a basic mixer. That setup will adapt far more readily to different requirements, and be easier to fix when something gets broken, due to it’s modular nature.

The way I see it, the SZ is perfect for somebody who’s already in the Serato ecosystem – perhaps they use a Rane interface and CDJs at venues they play. The kind of person who can’t justify spending the massive expense on a pair of CDJs just to use in HID mode when mixing at home. For that kind of use, the SZ, even at $2000, seems like a bit of a steal. As a Serato DJ user, you’ll be getting the maximum functionality for your software of choice, and you’ll be getting some very inspiring hardware to get your creative juices flowing.

The DDJ-SZ is available now in the DJ Techtools online store here. Support DJTT and buy from us! 

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  • brassprophet

    Eh, it’s an oversized more expensive DDJ-SX. If they added screens and USB drive ports, then it would have been a home run. At least, the USB drive port. I’ll wait for the SZ2, which will probably have one of these two things.

  • Kevin Lawson

    Will it be able to control Serato flip.

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  • Cleberson Pertile

    Well… If you play on Serato and have the money, why not?
    But if I had to choose between the SZ on Serato and the S4+F1 on Traktor, I’d go for the second. All the features you could ask for on a cheaper package.

  • CUSP

    Pinnacle? Probably not, but not far off. Certainly this controller has most of what a DJ would want, but it doesn’t have an internal computer (or rather “no need for a laptop”) and we’re seeing these new, very small, monitors that can display almost anything, placeable almost anywhere that would be nice too. This controller also has a maximum of Stereo out, which means managing 3D audio (Super CD or anything equivalent/better) simply won’t be possible.

    If having all these features in one box does it for you, get it. If it this seems too clunky, fortunately, there are many other options.

  • Peasey

    “…and if Decksaver get round to bringing out a model to fit…”

    Ta-da…

    http://www.decksaver.co.uk/covers/midi-controller-covers/ddj-sz-cover

    • Maccwerk

      …and the Decksaver for the SZ is fantastic. Well worth the price. Perfect fit, and great protection.

  • tony corless

    Nice review Chris, can I add no split cue and why can this thing not display track info over each deck.I think its way too big to fit into most club and bar booths and most mobile jocks I know can barely mix so can’t see them going for this.
    I can see this being a status symbol for jocks who would really prefer a pair of cdj 2000s and nexus mixer but won’t pay the price yet are prepared to pay the still very hefty price for this.
    The technology is out there to make a very good controller with plenty bells and whistles that will also play from a hard drive or usb stick,that will work just as well with whatever software you chose but its not about the dj its all about shifting units isn’t it,

  • Greg4422

    USB playback would’ve been nice

    • Toontown

      Agreed. Big miss.

  • chris

    looks fine. in my opinion to much colors and to little Fluro

  • Salmon Solly-p Potgieter

    Bought it off DJTT about 2 months ago & in love with it,
    2 Best purchases made = DDJ-SZ & RMX-1000

    • DJ Chronassuer

      I have the same setup!! to bad they didnt put send and returns on the mixer

      • Salmon Solly-p Potgieter

        Ya only thing missing. I Route it threw the master into another mixer and control the booth moniter in that mixer

  • ithinkmynameismoose

    Does it support Scratch control with Traktor?

    • Mojaxx

      It’s not Traktor Scratch certified, so DVS won’t work with the internal interface unless you want to get a bit ‘hacky’, which I personally don’t recommend.

      • Peasey

        I can confirm it does work though!

        • vastnorrland

          How did you get it to work? I got two Turntables i want to connect with DVS and use traktor. Do i have to buy the “NI Audio 10” soundcard? Or just two “DVS vinyls”?

  • Toontown

    So far this seems to have been a pretty huge flop. No club owner is going to install this as a permanent fixture. No mobile DJ is going to see a need to drop this much cash on something so gargantuan. They should have broken it up into modular pieces–a driveless CDJ is something I would actually consider buying.

    • Greg4422

      modular pieces? they already have those…they are call a stand alone mixer and CDJ’s

      • Toontown

        By driveless CDJ I meant one without onboard CD-playing technology. So it would be a CDJ-style platter that either controls your software or plays tracks from a USB stick.

        • Siana Gearz

          What’s the point? the CD player hardware adds the lot of like 10 or 20 bucks of cost. Negligible.

          • Toontown

            So by your logic we should put CD player hardware in every controller, right?

            It has nothing to do with cost. It has more to do with phasing out components that people use less and less to streamline designs and workflows.

          • Siana Gearz

            Streamlining workflows sounds good. We need some kind of standard for information to go along with the music in the file – the beatgrid, the comment and rating, the thumbnail for the waveform. Break down a few walled gardens, have a big party where everyone’s invited.

            Stop pumping audio through analog connections, never worry about buzz and earth, only one part (the mixer) will need to have a thorough electric design. Have Ethernet between all devices, and pass tempo, beat and phase information along with the sound, and share the music collection between all players. Pass along MIDI too, to integrate more live performance instruments and effects. All of this as an open standard so you can mix and match the Xones and the Denons, let the Pioneer rule you no more. And Power over Ethernet, so you can have your mixer power the whole kit – 25W per player is super plenty, have a magnificent lightshow with few cables.

            Streamlining designs… i don’t regard yer olde IDE/ATAPI bus on an embedded system as such a burden, you simply multiplex it with RAM, boo ya, streamlined design. Can’t do that on a PC, things are more complex there.

            The CDJ has the same hight as the mixer. We’ll want shallower mixers to go with players which can now be shallower.

            How’s that for a plan? But such changes need time, a lot of time. I give it 2 decades to happen. And i don’t think simply removing one part will nudge it further along. Hell, the gramophone record is still here. Matsushita/Technics have cancelled the DJ’s workhorse vinyl player half a decade ago, AudioTechnica and DJ-centric companies were quite eager to fill the void. What makes you think people won’t want to play a CD in another 30 years in their setup? Metadata will get scooped from the Internet, while still taking advantage of single-cable setup and multi-vendor, fully digital sysem, which is yet to emerge.

    • Dan White
      • Toontown

        HA! Yes! I forgot about that. The CDJ-Zero also boasts a game changing in-built advertising feature whereby a 30 second advertisement plays during every DJ’s set, roughly around every 20 minutes or so and in between songs so it doesn’t spoil the vibe in the room. Advertising is big business and so this felt like a natural step for the CDJ-Zero

      • tony corless

        thats the fellow £150 each and still a profit to be made

      • J.sto

        the cdj-xero with usb and legit screen would be cool. what about a pionner 2k cdj platter where the top part spins like vinyl?..i like the ns7’s and denons but it seems like you could merge the moving platter with the controller-like ring around the outside. turntables are great n all but really i just like the feel of the music going away from the cue point..

    • Esbeesy

      I’m very friendly with one of the largest nightclub chains in the UK and I know that they have ordered quite a few of these controllers from Pioneer (Albeit at cost price, Pioneers clever marketing strategy being what it is and all that)

      • Toontown

        Interesting. I guess if there’s room in the booth for this AND a CDJ/TT rig it’s not a bad investment.

    • Sounds like it’s having no troubles selling. It’s a beast 🙂

  • Feel

    No send/return for external fx like pioneer RMX is not so professional at this high price.

    • Mojaxx

      I’ve pretty much given up on any controller having send/return loops by now… It’s a real shame, as I love my RMX-1000, but I can only conclude that the market isn’t really demanding that feature enough for manufacturers to bother.

      • Mike

        I still prefer an analog mixer because most of them have a send/return channel and no need to carry big controllers and its easier to start using other controllers or combining a few of them

        • feel

          This why, I quit controller gear after 4 years now and come back to DVS. Nothing compare to a real analog mixer and an RMX-1000.
          Please DJ gear company, go to the next step of professional controller. 🙂

          • calkutta

            absolutely correct.

      • Feel

        Nice video Chris, good jobs as usual. I like your Mojaxx youtube channel 🙂

  • DJblackjack

    Hey look at the bright side, the SX will become cheaper 😀

  • sandeep

    2000$ is a strong investment. Better go modular.
    In terms of traktor usage, the s4 really is top class at the moment.

    • Oddie O’Phyle

      went modular about a half year ago. i have no complaints with my Z2 and 900’s as a set up, i enjoy the flexibility more than the S4.

      • sandeep

        Yes I was referring to s4 as a cost effective alternative in the all in one category.
        Of course the z2, x1s are killer setups for modular expansion

        • Oddie O’Phyle

          i bought an S4 about 2 and a half years ago, by far one of my favorite controllers. the one thing that bothers me about controllers is that it is dependent on a computer being present, running your host software. it was a tough decision to sell my S4 to fund the new set up, but now i have the option to leave the laptop at home while using the same gear.

          • sandeep

            True that. Dependency can lead to disasters.
            🙂

    • Darilov

      Agree with you. I have an S4 mk2 with 2 F1’s. One on each side and I think nothing can beat that set up..

      • sandeep

        I am planning on getting the f1s 🙂
        but first I need to upgrade my knowledge on them

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