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Denon DN-X1500 Review by Deft - May 2004

Background & Main Interface

Launched fully around February of this year, the DN-X1500 is Denon's answer to the Pioneer Djm-600 and is an ideal compliment to a pair of their DN-S5000 series tabletop cd players. Straight out of the box it's an impressive beast - it feels solid and looks the part. But then for a street price in the region of £650 you should reasonably be expecting quality. It has an impressive set of I/O: 3 Phono/Line (switchable), plus a FURTHER 5 Line RCA and 2 Mic (1x 1/4" TRS and 1x XLR+1/4" TRS combo). In terms of outputs it has both balanced and unbalanced master outputs (+4dBu XLR and 0dbV RCA respectively), with a coaxial S/PDIF digital master output fixed at 44.1kHz. It also has booth and record outputs (0dBV and -10dBV RCA respectively). Other things of note on the back panel include 1/4" TS connections for the external effects loop, a mono switch and level attenuator for the master output, 3.5mm fader start connections for Line 2,4,6 & 8 and a sneaky little USB port for software updates. The side and front unit plates are clear aside from some ventilation holes, and overall the unit has a nice balanced feel to it. It has that familiar look to it and follows the traditional layout of the 12" 4-channel club style mixer popularised by the Djm series.

So what have Denon done to try and convince people to switch from the industry standard Pioneer Djm? Well, it would be easier to list what they haven't done! It's absolutely jam-packed with features, which seems to be a recurring theme in Denon's products. It has the obligatory digital effects section but couples this with lots of customisable presets including a parametric eq section and a separate sampler section. With a Penny & Giles crossfader and full curve control it promises to be more scratch friendly than other similar market offerings. It also features a rather lovely matrix input system.

Bread & Butter Features

Well you can have as many bright lights and knobs as you want but if the basics aren't there on a mixer then it's useless. The overall sound output of the mixer is very crisp, clean and clear. It does have that slightly sparkly digital high-end quality to it but it still packs a nice punch in the low-end. No problems here. I couldn't get the mixer to distort which is always reassuring - plenty of headroom . Next, the matrix input. It makes so much sense you wonder why it isn't included on all mixers. Instead of the usual phono/line switch for each channel there is a rotary which allows you to select any input you want - meaning you can have the same input routed to all 4 channels if you like. This is about as flexible as it gets and means you won't be forced into a certain channel by default. It also opens up some creative potential for messing around with two of the same signal in conjunction with eq settings or the effects section.

Moving down the channel strips we have the gain and eq controls. Thankfully the gains go all the way down to nothing and there is plenty of power in them. I don't envisage there ever being a situation where you couldn't get your signal nicely to 0dB with these, regardless of input type. They are quite sensitive because they cover such a large range but as long as you're careful and use a delicate touch you'll be fine. Also considering each channel has it's own nice clear dedicated level meter you should have no excuses for lurches in volume. The eq is 3 band and rated at +10dB/-40dB for the mids and high, with the lows being +6dB/-40dB. The real treat is that the eq is parametric and adjustable via the presets menu. This allows you to adjust the frequency point of the eq and also the bandwidth (3 way adjustable - Wide, Normal & Narrow). There is a backlit push button next to the low eq which allows you to toggle the eq on and off. This is noise-free and responsive enough to enable to you punch the eq in and out without any problems. The final features of the channel-strips are the low-profile crossfader routing switches and the cue switches. The signal routing switches allow you to send that channel to either side of the crossfader or straight to the main mix.

I'm not a major fan of the way the cueing system has been implemented. What the pan rotary actually does is blend between the cue signals of the channels and master, rather than permanently routing the master to one side (which would have made the master cue switch redundant). So in order to get a signal to the master side of the pan rotary you have to press the cueing switch, which seems a bit pointless considering you can only ever send 1 signal there! Also the channel cueing signals are taken pre-fader (post-eq). Fine. But, the master cue signal is taken post the master level rotary. Yes, in signal flow terms this is still 'post-gain' but this is the only level control for the master output so we come a bit unstuck. In real terms this means that your master cue signal is at the mercy of the master level rotary. This would be fine if you were always running your master level at the same rating as your channels, but in my experience this doesn't always happen. So you will have a mismatch in cueing levels a lot of the time. This also means there is no way to get a master signal in your headphones without having the main master output running at a considerable level. So for me this meant if I wanted to practice scratching in my headphones I had to turn my active monitors off. I can't see much of an advantage to taking the master cue signal at this point, and I also don't see why Denon couldn't have had both. They could have routed the master signal pre-gain to the master side of the pan rotary permanently, and then also had the master cue switch send the master signal post-gain to the cue side when pressed. I definitely think there is room for improvement here. It also makes you realise how devastatingly simple yet effective the 'flash-cue' feature on the Rane Empath is for quick cueing. Push button cueing of multiple input sources gets a bit tiring.

The Display, Presets and Updates

Just above the crossfader is the display where pretty much every aspect of control state is shown in one way or another. To be honest I haven't found this particularly useful and still find it easier to look at the physical controls to see what is routed where etc. Looking at all the little abbreviations and numbers is like some kind of obscure code you need to translate! The display is also used to navigate through the effects, sampler and presets menus. There are a variety of presets that let you tailor the mixer to your own needs, adding even more flexibility. I wonder how long it will be before every bit of equipment we use is just like a control surface with removable user data? Instant profiles, fast user switching, Microsoft Windows integrated dj mixers! Eek! As scary as this sounds it would be nice to be able to save 'profile' settings and switch between them. Also greater control over effects and cue routing in the presets would be great. For example being able to choose whether the cue signal was taken pre- or post-eq, or setting the effects loop to postfader. As mentioned previously the presets menu lets you adjust the frequency point and width of the eq section. I haven't managed to get the eq to perform a total kill regardless of any settings I tried. I couldn't quite get the frequency bands to overlap fully. However, it's pretty nice being able to adjust the sound of the eq to suit the end user. I did find this initially to cause a bit of anxiety as you feel like you are swamped with choice. Also because of the way you have to click through the frequency bands and width in a menu it's hard to adjust the eq bands in relation to one another. Essentially it's a matter of sitting down with some music you like and spending the time to set it up how you feel best.

Other choices that would probably be mounted in switches and rotaries on other mixers are available in the presets menu - headphone eq, channel fader curve and an extra sharpness control on the crossfader. I'd probably prefer these to be on the main surface area but seeing as it's already jam-packed it seems sensible to resign these to the presets menu.

There is also the somewhat tempting prospect of updates to the unit. The microprocessor version of this review unit is SYS 6591 PAN 6590 DSP 1000. Whether there will be huge changes in future updates is unknown. Denon stay fairly guarded as to what may or may not be possible with the unit, which is understandable. Only time will tell........

The Effects and Sampler Sections

One of the main selling points and attractions for a lot of people on the X-1500 will be the effects section. So how does it fare and what do you get for your money? Well you get 9 digital effects (5 of which you need to activate via the presets menu): Delay, Echo 1 & 2, Filter 1 & 2, Flanger, Pan, Trans & Key %. These are all synced via the onboard BPM counter - which is a definite improvement over the counters on the DN-S5000 and S3000 (though still not perfect for non 4/4 kicks - but that's what the tap button is for!). As well as syncing them to various beat timings you can also adjust the timings manually in msec. I haven't really used the manual input modes as they don't lend themselves very well to live quick adjustments. It would be really cool to have a nice fat smooth rotary which let you quickly sweep through the manual mode as a secondary control.

The Delay and Flanger work pretty much as you would expect them to. Echo 2 is the 'normal' echo, whereas Echo 1 enables you to loop the echo if you put it on 100% wet. Filter 1 is further sub-divided into Low Pass, Band Pass and High Pass,  with manual sweep control using the wet/dry rotary. Filter 2 seems to be a Low Pass filter but the difference being it is automatically swept (instant disco house!). Pan shunts the audio from L to R and is faded nicely so it doesn't sound rough and choppy. Trans cuts the sound in and out much like a transform scratch. The Key % effect lets you adjust the key of the audio whilst maintaining the tempo. Like most of these time-stretching/pitch-shifting effects it only really works on full tracks within a few % sounding natural. However, you can always utilise it as an effect in it's own right! It's not something that can be adjusted on the fly cleanly due to the nature of the processing. You'd be better off doubling the channel up using the matrix input and applying it continuously - you can then chop it in and out using the crossfader or channel fader.

So how about the quality? Pretty good overall. The filters work well and sound decent providing you exercise some control when using them. The filter 2 is actually active on the 100% dry setting which i'm informed will be addressed on the first update. The filters don't benefit from the same flexibility or analogue sound as those found on the Xone series of mixers (but then they only have 1 onboard effect). The flanger sounds quite rough in comparison to that found on my Electrix Mo-FX, especially at the point where the effect crosses over. Again, a little restraint with the wet/dry control will help you get a better balance. Another bonus of the matrix input can be seen here. You can just set up a 'wet' channel and then use the crossfader as the wet/dry control instead of the rather small rotary. This also works great for the delay. With a bit of lateral thinking the matrix input really shines.

All the effects controls are crammed into a mere 2 rotaries which can feel a bit claustrophobic - especially if you are used to a much more spacious dedicated effects box. Clicking through menus on a display for live dj effects removes some of the fun and spontaneous knob-twiddling, but once you learn how you want to use the effects it's not so bad.
 
The sampler controls and it's logic are virtually identical to that found on the DN-S3000/DN-S5000. You have one bank of 8 seconds with one loop point available within this time. You have +/-100% control over pitch, and the sound level of the sampler can be adjusted from -14dB upto +6dB. A variety of play modes and play direction can be selected which involve full looping, exit at the loop point or exit at the end of the bank. A/B trim facilities are there and you can also assign the sampler output to either side of the crossfader as well as the main output. Also quite sensibly, the sampler cue button disables the sampler output for rehearsal/trimming. Again there is certain amount of menu navigation which takes a while to get used to but it's nice to have the sampler in it's own distinct section from the effects.
 
There is also a pre-fader external effects loop, which works fine provided you are not a total idiot (e.g. me). After some 'problems' (ahem) and a few adaptors later I got it hooked up to my Mo-FX unit (tip: don't run unbalanced level signals into balanced level inputs!). Any of your channels, main mic, sampler or master can be sent and there is a wet/dry rotary to control the balance. This means in conjunction with the onboard effects you can layer different effects on the same channel if you so desire.

Scratch Worthy?

The Penny & Giles crossfader feels great straight out of the box, as one would probably expect. It's nicely weighted, sturdy and very smooth. It makes the upfaders feel cheap and flimsy in comparison. These are pretty loose and have a very light unweighted feel to them. They are ALPS short body faders and having a peek under the faceplate shows there is no room to get a long body fader in there. The channel faders have a 3-way adjustable curve control; Slow, Normal & Fast. These shift the contours slightly but the volume fade still occurs over a considerable difference so people hoping for a crossfader like cut at either end will not find it here. Considering the style of the mixer this is not surprising.

The crossfader does benefit from a full rotary curve control, right down from a dipped fade upto a scratch cut-in. There is also a preset for the crossfader which allows you to select normal or sharp. This steepens all the curves possible. There isn't an actual cut-in distance adjustment feature though (as seen on the Ecler Hak 360 and Pioneer DJM-909). This would be a pretty nice preset to have. However, on the sharpest setting the fader cuts in to full volume very sharply, at around 1mm to full volume. This happens in 2 distinct volume steps. This is a result of the digital control of the crossfader and the stepping used. On the 'normal' crossfader setting the cut-in happens over 3 audible steps.

So how does the crossfader perform?

Terribly.

There is a real issue with the digital control of the fader. There seems to be a very slight delay in the response of the fader, so everything feels mistimed. It's like having an 'off' day, but all the time! You can feel this in the other controls like the gains, eq and wet/dry rotaries - but you aren't really moving these quick enough for it to be a huge issue (though it does feel a bit strange). There is also a second fader problem that I noticed when 3-click orbiting (crab style). It is like the fader misses clicks. Like it can't process the movements quick enough. This all adds upto a horrible feeling and messy sound. There is also a switch like quality to the cut sound which I am guessing is an artifact of the digital volume stepping.

Some other issues for scratchers will be the abundance of screws around the fader area and separate fader plate section. They really do enforce why these sorts of obstructions to movement were removed from all serious scratch mixers around 10 years ago! Also the placement of the headphone jack means juggling would be very seriously hindered. A secondary input on the front panel would have been very welcome. The mixer also gets ridiculously hot around the fader area and front panel which can also be a bit disconcerting.

Summary

Well it's been a rollercoaster ride of emotions with this mixer. From the initial high "wow" factor, leading to an uneasy feeling with the faders which has somewhat finally been offset by the high overall performance and flexibility for mixing. They have grabbed the best parts of a lot of mixers and packaged it in such a way that makes it hard to argue with overall. For what you get at the price point, it's supreme value for money. They've crammed so much in, it would be easy to call it a jack of all trades and master of none - but this would be unfair. Denon have pitched the product perfectly for the market they are after. Unfortunately the scratch dj is not a part of this market, let alone the even rarer breed of scratch dj looking for a 4-channel mixer. There is no-one as much as me who wanted this mixer to deliver the goods, but in it's present state it can't. There is perhaps a glimmer of hope that a software update could fix the fader delay and decay issue. I could probably live with the awkward positioning of the headphone jack and fader plate / screw obstructions, but there is no way I could live with the poor crossfader response. If, and it's a a very big IF, Denon can somehow address this in a software update then they may be able to redeem this mixer for those of us who like to use faders in a more serious way!

UPDATE FROM GIZMO: With the ability to update the firmware, the fader issues reported by Deft have been fixed. Having played with the X1500 a couple of time at length, I have no issues with decay like the feelings I had previously. The P&G is now very responsive and catches every click. I've left the review untouched for historical reasons. The rating has been amended from 6/10 to 8/10 with Deft's agreement.

Rating - 8/10

Alternatives
 
There's not a huge array of >2 channel mixers for the scratch happy amongst us. Obvious alternative choices on the market are the Vestax PMC-37 Pro (which I found a little cramped) and the Rane Empath - which would still be my main choice. It is still only 3 channel but benefits from all P&G faders plus the excellent FlexFX effects loop and the rather nifty 'flash-cue' function. Also on the horizon is the Nuo-5 from Ecler.........

 



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