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Return to DN-S3000 Page

Read Gizmo's pt1 review

Denon DN-S3000 Review - Part 2 - By Deft - Date: Dec 2003

Launched in September 2003, the DN-S3000 is essentially a DN-S5000 with a few features stripped out to make the whole interface and operational use more simple - and perhaps more importantly - put it into direct competition price-wise with the Pioneer Cdj-800. Aside from a few cosmetic points the DN-S3000 is finished to the same standard as the DN-S5000, which allays any potential fears that the build of the unit has been scrimped on to save money.
Like the DN-S5000, the DN-S3000 is user upgradeable via software plug-ins -which allow extra features and bug-fixes to be applied via a cd-rom if they become available. Having said this, the key upgrades that were issued by Denon for the DN-S5000 are available as standard on the DN-S3000 - so it remains to be seen whether any significant upgrades will be issued for the DN-S3000.

Background + Main Interface

The unit itself has a smaller footprint than the Pioneer Cdj-1000mk2 and Cdj-800 but still manages a 7" platter and 120mm full length pitch slider. The CD drive is slot loading and also user replaceable - it installs in the same way as an IDE drive with a power supply and associated ribbon cable. On the back of the unit are a pair of outputs - analog and digital (RCA and coaxial S/PDIF respectively). Thankfully the digital out is fixed to 44.1 KHz 'true' digital regardless of the pitch or mode setting - which was a problem with the original Cdj-1000 (though Pioneer have added a switch to allow this on the Cdj-1000mk2). Unlike the Cdj1000mk2, the DN-S3000 will output PQ subcode data whilst in full use - giving the most obvious benefit of preserving track index changes regardless of what is happening to the audio. There are also 3.5mm jack connectors for 'FADER START' and 'X EFFECT IN/OUT'. 'FADER START' is a connection available on some mixers allowing playback to be triggered/stopped from crossfader movements. 'X-EFFECT' is used for connecting the unit to Denon's X800 mixer, allowing relay play between two units and for transferring MEMO info between units (more on MEMO later).
The unit feels quite compact in use but the layout is intuitive and I have had no problems with regards spacing of controls during operation. Visibility is good in low light conditions, thanks largely to the main buttons being backlit and the bright display. The display size is adequate and all the critical info is displayed clearly. It would be nice to have a bit more space for long track names rather than having to wait for them to scroll through, but otherwise the display serves it's purpose well.

In Use

One of the key selling points of the DN-S3000 is it's "world's first active platter design" - allowing vinyl style control over digital audio. This is achieved through a 7" belt driven platter that is set at 45rpm (although it does change rotation speed with pitch control adjustment of up to +/-24%). The unit ships with a clear plastic scratch disc with fake vinyl style grooves which is fixed to the shaft via a stabilizer. A slip-sheet and slip mat are provided underneath the scratch disc so that it moves independently of the platter to provide the vinyl-like control.

So how does it perform?

Well, probably better than you'd expect. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't impressed when I first used it. The feel of the stock scratch disc is good - though not particularly faithful to vinyl - regardless of it's pretend grooves. Denon have catered for the vinyl purist by supplying an adaptor that allows you to fit your own 7" vinyl record. This works fine but due to the way the adaptor lifts the vinyl from the platter surface slightly you may have to try a few different records until you get the resistance you like - or combine it with some thicker material slip mats.

The platter itself has a slight amount of vertical play to it, though to be fair this has no bearing on the performance as there is no needle/tone arm to transmit vibrations or movement to. This brings the added bonus of a 100% skip-free system - making rough lazers, rubs and hydroplanes a breeze. In a sense, this could also be a double edged sword for people who rely on vibrations being picked up purposefully by a traditional turntable cartridge for a certain technique. In all honesty, I'd rather have a skip free setup!
In terms of actual accuracy of positioning and sample drift the player performs flawlessly. There is no perceivable movement of samples during use, or even when performing scribbles for an extended period of time.

The problems?

There does seem to be instances when you can confuse the player's buffering/memory setup by wildly spinning forward and backward with the scratch disc. To be fair, you have to try quite hard and I haven't been in any real normal use situation where I've had problems.

Overall the actual scratch sound is of a good quality - easily as good as it's main competitors from my own (fairly limited) experience. Like most real-time digital manipulation I've heard it does suffer in certain situations. Very quick movements, particularly on higher pitched sounds reveal the kind of garbled digitized sound we'd all rather avoid. This becomes painfully obvious if using the 'beep' noise from the typical 'beep-aaah-fresh' scratch sample.

Aside from this one particular sound it actually handles most other typical samples I've used very well - particularly drum sounds and suchlike.
My other two main gripes about the scratch control are probably the most obvious. The fact it is a belt-drive is not such a huge issue in itself, simply that the torque is not really strong enough all of the time. For example, if doing a quick succession of stabs you will often get a slur in pickup. Sure, with a lighter touch and some slip mat tweaking you could no doubt reduce this occurring - but some techniques require different amounts of pressure and platter manipulation. Hence some of these techniques may not transfer too well onto this unit.

Denon have tried to disguise the lack of torque by setting the default platter speed at 45rpm. Although this stays faithful to what a 7" record would spin at, I find it a fairly uncomfortable speed to scratch to - simply because 99.9% of the time I would usually be scratching at 33rpm. I suppose this is a personal issue to some extent, but I found that long practice sessions - especially at slower tempos - became less enjoyable. Even simple repeats and rearrangements of sentences seem tricky to adjust to at 45rpm. Maybe it's just me?

Other main features

The pitch control has an adjustable range of +/-4,10,16,24,50 or 100% (50 & 100% are not supported with mp3). With 0.02% pitch steps on the +/-4% range you are afforded a lot of accuracy for mixing. Coupled with pitch bend buttons and a 'KEY ADJUST' feature (locks the musical key at the original 0% setting and allows you to then adjust the tempo independently) you will have no excuses for shoddy mixing! In fact, after a certain adjustment period, I found straight beat-mixing very enjoyable on the DN-S3000 (I dare say more so than on my Technics!).

The 'KEY ADJUST' feature works well, but as is inherent in all time-stretching style effects, there are 'problems' at extremes. However, these can easily be incorporated as a sort of effect depending on the situation. I found that for music with full drum tracks the key adjust sounds natural down to about -4% (you can 'get away' with more +ive tempo adjustment without it being as noticeable). With pads, acappellas and suchlike you will be able to stretch further than this. Largely this will come down to what the end user finds acceptable for a certain situation.

The pitch control has a really nice weighted feel with a centre click, but has a small glitch on the 4,16 & 24% ranges. On these ranges, the pitch control only moves in it's correct increments when moving from 0 outwards. When moving back towards 0 the display will skip pitch increments. I have contacted Denon regarding this and apparently this falls within 'hardware specification' and will not be fixed at a later date via software or otherwise. I find this a little galling that essentially on half of the selectable pitch ranges there is a minor bug. It's quite a small problem that the majority of people will probably never notice, but it's still a shame (plus it annoys me!). This behaviour also exists on the DN-S5000.

There are 4 selectable 'PLATTER EFFECTS': DRAG-START, BRAKE, REVERSE & DUMP. DRAG-START and BRAKE emulate a standard turntable wind-up and slow-down, with both being time adjustable. REVERSE works as you would probably expect it to - though it is only performed for 5 seconds if using MP3. DUMP is like a smart REVERSE and works superbly in a live situation. Extremely simple but almost impossible to describe! Essentially the moment you hit DUMP the audio starts playing in reverse but the actual audio timing is still progressing as usual. This means when you come out of the DUMP feature the track is where it would have been had you not been going in reverse. This means the track keeps it's correct timing and structure - meaning you can do it mid-mix or suchlike with no timing problems. So you can quickly reverse just a drum hit at the end of a bar or whole bars but still keep things flowing properly. It will only let you DUMP for 4 seconds before it comes out of the effect, but in practice this is more than enough for every situation i've used it in.
The last key features of the deck are the hot start/stutter, seamless loop and sampler sections.

Once you get over the initial head scratching of the sampler it becomes great fun and can allow a lot of creativity. Essentially it is 1 bank with a maximum sampling time of 15 seconds. Also within this 15 seconds you can set 1 loop point. After setting up the sampler you are able to control it via the platter by hitting the 'SCRATCH MODE' button (this toggles between the platter controlling the main audio or sampler audio). You can also adjust the volume and pitch (+/-24%) of the sample - or even make it play in reverse. If you take a nice clean loop using the sampler you can do some nice tricks by scratching the loop over the same track, doing certain beat delays or creating a flanging effect etc. Also you can leave the sampler playing in loop mode - eject the current cd and then drop mix in the start of another track from another cd! The sampler memory is volatile, meaning you lose the sampler data if you power down the unit. I can't see this being a huge problem unless all you ever want to use is 1 sample!

The hot start/stutter/looping is performed via a quick couple of button taps. Setting them up is about as intuitive and simple as it gets (provided you have good timing!). For those without immaculate timing there are facilities for trimming and moving the A & B points of your loop or stutter point. This works fine in pratice though I feel perhaps the way the trimming and moving is performed could be refined a little. It feels a little cumbersome and can be time consuming if you are in a rush.

However, this leads us neatly onto the MEMO section. The DN-S3000 has 5000 MEMO points available for storage in non-volatile onboard memory. The way it works is that you can have 1 MEMO point per track per cd. This 1 MEMO point can contain info for your cue point, A & B hot start/loop points, playing pitch and whether the pitch or key adjust feature is on or off. So if you spend the time getting all your cue and loop points sorted out beforehand and saving them to MEMO, then at a touch of a button you can recall your perfect loops. Sweet! Saving your cue points to MEMO also allows you to use them in conjunction with the 'NEXT TRACK RESERVE' feature to drop mix into another track on the same CD seamlessly. Double sweet!

MP3 Compatibility

Another key selling point of the DN-S3000 over it's rivals is MP3 compatibility. Providing you adhere to some basic format rules you should be able to get your cd-roms containing MP3 files up and running no problems. However, there are some restrictions when using MP3 files due to the extra memory and DSP they require. Most noticeably; Display accuracy drops to seconds rather than frames, 50 & 100% pitch ranges are not supported, sampler functionality is lost, reverse play limited to 5 seconds & time remaining display/manual search/fast search not possible with Variable Bit Rate (VBR) encoded MP3 files.

This all sounds a bit doom and gloom, but knowing the way MP3 encoding works I'm not surprised it taxes the resources a bit. There are different search methods available to sift through what will presumably be the large amounts of MP3 files per disk. These are logical and work well - though it's definitely worth spending the time organizing things properly with correct tag info to make the track selection process as painless as possible. You don't want to be floundering around in a live situation because you didn't take time to keep things tidy and sensible.

In terms of using MP3 for scratching I couldn't hear any perceivable difference in quality of the scratch sound or accuracy. However, back-spinning is only possible up to 5 seconds and it seemed quite easy to cause buffering/memory problems in the forward direction as well. Hence, I'm not sure i'd recommend using MP3 for intense juggling.

In Summary

Although it is not perfect, it is very hard not to be impressed with this player and how far digital dj'ing has come. There have been plenty of moments where I've chuckled to myself at how neatly or cleverly some of the features have been implemented. For the hardcore turntablist I don't feel the control or sound is quite good enough (i.e. close enough to vinyl) to advocate a total switch in format. Perhaps the forthcoming cd-decks from Numark and Technics may be more suitable for pure turntablist applications. This doesn't take away from the ingeniuty of the rest of the unit - and I feel the scratch control and sound is easily good enough to be used where scratching itself is not the main focus of the performance. Considering to what a high standard everything has been finished and thought out it would be petty to let a few minor gripes overshadow what is easily the best cd-deck in it's price range at time of writing.

Rating - 9/10

Big thanks to Silvio Zeppieri from Denon USA and David Morbey from Denon UK for the loan of the demo unit. 

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