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Denon DN-S1200 Digital Media Player
Reviewer: Gizmo • Date: February 2009 • Price: $499/€449/£449 • Link: Denon

Introduction

Denon DN-S1200 Review

It’s been a very long time since we had any Denon gear come through the skratchworx review machine. Indeed one of the very first reviews we ever did was the Denon DN-S5000 CD deck - which we loved, but despite its goodness, never managed to break the vice-like grip that the Pioneers had on the market.

And how the market has changed in this time. The scene is full of all shapes and sizes of digital decks, covering the very bottom end of the simple CD spinning range all the way up to... well... Denon’s flagship DN-S5500 mothership of nextlevelness. That particular beast will be covered off in another review, but right now we’re casting our eye over the diminutive and distinctive DN-S1200 - the successor to their 1000 model, but with a heap of today’s digital toys stuffed inside the tiny case for good measure.

First Impressions

Denon DN-S1200 review

When looking at the smaller end of the CD market, you’ll find that most of it is dominated by rebadged OEM models that all offer much the same performance and features. So it’s important for manufacturers to make an impact on the gear hungry buyers, especially when this sector is already pretty full. And this is a key element of the DN-S1200 - there’s nothing else visually like it on the market. It’s hard to forget once it has appeared on your radar and it begs you to take a further look.

From the buttons to the screen - the DN-S1200 is classic Denon - not wildly different from the older 1000 model, but space has been made to house a few extra controls, and importantly to centralise the screen. I do however find my brain slightly at odds with the layout - the human brain works in grids, left to right top to bottom, and there is a certain random feel to the placement. I would simply have liked the buttons to line up a little more, but considering how much is included in the deck, it’s a matter of finding a space not only on - but also inside - the 1200.

Denon DN-S1200 review

The DN-S1200 is all plastic and rubber. This however isn’t a criticism as the feel is solid and heavyweight. The case feels like it’ll take some abuse - which is a good job really as the likely buyer is probably out and about all the time with the decks being loaded and unloaded on an all too regular basis. The buttons have a reassuring but subtle click, and the pitch control feels a lot more stable than many on the market.

The Screen

Denon DN-S1200 Review

All these buttons and associated stuff are pretty useless without some feedback from the DN-S1200 itself, and that’s where the screen comes in. It’s a typical LCD screen, resplendent in bluey-green goodness with bits of orange and red for good measure. It’s certainly nice and bright and thankfully very legible in all lighting conditions.

The top third shows track number, play and time mode and pitch. Right underneath that is a bar displaying the source, file format, connected devices key adjust and memo mode. Below that is the pseudo waveform - essentially a series of dots. The bottom half is given over to loops and the scratch indicator which neatly sandwich all the track info. This is a neat and logical layout, enhanced by clever use of colour to break up the screen.

The one thing it does lack is a real waveform. You do however get a kind of progress bar that indicates the position roughly in the track. I know some of you have become dependent on such things, but when you’re trying to shoehorn so much into such a tiny box, something has to give. Personally, I’ve never been dependent on a waveform so I really don’t have an issue with it not being there.

The Jog Wheel

DNS1200 Denon review

Regardless of who a deck might be aimed at, people tend to be most interested in the jog wheel or platter, and just how it feels to the touch. I tend to get annoyed when some readers diss a deck simply because the jog wheel performance isn’t like a regular vinyl turntable. News flash - most CD decks are only designed to offer emulation, and more often than not the emulation is largely restricted to cueing up and backspins, not accurately replicating the nuances of 180g vinyl on a Butter Rug equipped Technics 1210 with Shure 447 cart.

Denon DN-S1200 review

So approaching the DN-S1200, I had no expectations of breathtaking vinyl experience. Just as well really, as there’s only so much that you can do with a 1mm thick plastic disk. It’s claimed to be touch sensitive, but I’d say it’s more pressure sensitive, but without the click that often goes hand in hand with such jog wheels, engaging very smoothly after about 0.5mm. Underneath the clear plastic disk is a series of thin slip mats that give a smooth feel. But it isn’t advised to remove the disk to add your own custom slipmats. Take a look at this thread to see how users are safely customising their 1200s.

Without engaging scratch mode, the jog wheel acts as a regular pitch bend wheel and at times a system controller, giving a large pitch range shift as well. But when pressing the jog mode button and switching on scratch mode is when the fun starts.

denon dn-s1200 review

Being a static wheel, there’s no real way to effectively gauge spinbacks, but the display does offer a pretty accurate hi res wheel showing a marker spinning, that does match the disk’s movement as well. So if you’re scratching, you can accurately pull back to the right place each time. Despite the relative simplicity of the jog wheel, it gave me a much better scratch performance than I had expected. Slow drags down crisp, scribbles are precise and spinbacks are as good as can be expected from a non-weighted 12cm disk. It’s not, never will be, nor aims to replicate vinyl, but for the casual scratcher, it’ll give you a little more than you expected.

Denon DN-S1200 Review

On a related not, despite being a static wheel, you still get a brake for that real vinyl sound that’s configurable between 0.2 and 4 seconds. You also get a full reverse play mode as well as a dump mode that allows you do that potty talk reverse playback ish and still come back to the right point in your music - up to a full 4 seconds.

There is one big problem for me with the jog wheel though, and that's related to using effects and loops. Being much more of a hands-on DJ, I like to be able to engage effects with my hand on the platter, and fine cue loops and then press the loop button. Sadly, this isn't possible on the 1200 - the music must be freely playing to use these features. This annoys me immensly and has been fed back to Denon in hope of a fix.

For a quick demo of the platter's touchy feely abilities, watch the clip below:


Formats

Denon DN-S1200 review

As is the way of maturing technology, a handful of mediums and formats have emerged at standards. CD is rapidly becoming a legacy format for some, but there’s still a globe full of people with their music safely stored on this ageing medium. Thus the DN-S1200 is equipped with a slot loading CD drive. Sadly there’s no data or MP3 disks here, nor DVD either which I’m a little sad about. But then again, the USB handling really negates the need for more than having the CD drive as little more than a backup. For the number geeks out there, load to ready time is around 8 seconds. But the DN-S1200 is geared towards USB usage, and I feel the CD is there out of courtesy.

Denon DN-S1200 review

Having established that the DN-S1200 is aimed squarely at data DJs, the heart of this unit is the USB port. You can plug in all sorts of USB mass storage devices - USB keys, external drive and iPods to name but a few. There are some limitations however - 50,000 files is the limit on any device - that’s probably around 400-500 record crates, so not really a limitation at all.

File format wise, it's MP3 and WAV but no AAC or AIFFs for Mac users. Again, I don’t really see this as a limitation as the DN-S1200 is not really aimed at audiophiles, but instead is for the iPod toting generation who’s entire music life is likely to be digital - thus MP3 and WAV is an ideal choice. But even then, there’s another limitation to be aware of - the DN-S1200 can only work with files encoded at 44.1khz. Anything lower or higher is ignored by the 1200 and the Music Manager software software rejects it. I'm sure for most people ripping CDs, this won't be an issue but I did find a few rogue songs in my collection that wouldn't appear.

Denon dn-s1200 review

And there’s a very strong Windows bias here - putting a Mac formatted USB device in is met with nothing. Plugging in a Mac formatted iPod meets the same brick wall. And there’s the aforementioned lack of support for Mac format files. And the yet to be covered Denon Music Manager is PC only as well. Why this should be I don’t know, but I only came across these things because I was looking for them. Lucky for you guys I have access to a PC so that I can test out how well the DN-S1200 works with USB media.

I just posted a poll on skratchworx to see what the basic split is between OSs and it would seem that while the business world is dominated by Windows, the music industry seems to bemuch closer to a 50/50 split. Just saying.

Essentially, the DN-S1200 is about supporting new standards - hence the emphasis on USB and MP3 - and streamlining your playing experience. Macs and PCs fully support MP3 and FAT32 format so that should be good enough.

Denon Music Manager

Denon DNs1200 review

The key to so many of these digital players is how the unit handles the files. It’s easy enough to plug a device into the 1200 and start to play music, but every time you did, it would have to build a library of every track and the tags within those tracks. So what happens is that a library file is built once and that is accessed each time by the DN-S1200. This can be done on the unit (and for Mac users has to be), but the best way is via the Denon Music Manager software.

Denon Music Manager review

In a nutshell, DMM (as it shall be called henceforth) makes the task of library building an automatic and pain-free job. Essentially DMM scans the USB device for music, catalogues every file, reads all the tags and creates a library file for the DN-S1200 to quickly reference and drastically decreases loading times. At the same time, you can get DMM to auto BPM your files and store that as a tag as well, ready for the DN-S1200 to immediately use. The tags used are artist, title, album, genre, year, time, filename and BPM. DMM works with ID3 tags, but also with relatively non-supported WAV tags as well, which is a nice plus. TheDN- S1200 also offers folder search for those whose ID3 tags are not so tidy.

For smaller devices, this is a fairly quick process, but analysing the BPMs can take a little longer. And on bigger drives, this could stretch into hours for many thousands of files. But because my world is Mac rooted, I’ve been unable to test out anything bigger than 256Mb USB keys and Lil Miss Giz’s 1Gb iPod (hence the nusic selection in the screenshots). In testing, it seems that DMM is more accurate that the DN-S1200 when calculating BPMs. No BPM analyser is perfect, but I found myself having to tap the BPM into the 1200 on anything outside of 4 to the floor beats. But DMM seemed to handle things better, and quicker too.



DMM also allows you to import and create playlists for direct access by the 1200 as well. So you can keep 1 file on the storage device and access it several times over. There’s also searching on the tags too - you can do a logic (and/or) on 2 sets of tags to narrow down your selections. This searching makes creating playlists easy. I especially like having 2 parameters to search under. At the same time, you can edit all the tags you like, either individually or as a sequential batch. And putting all the Denon functionality aside, DMM is a simple music player that operates on the same simplistic levels as iTunes. Nice.

Denon DN-S1200 review

But for those of you i.e. non Windows users who can’t run DMM, you’ll have to build your libraries on the DN-S1200. It’s easy, relatively quick and works every time in my experience, but I’ve yet to push any real volume through it. There are 2 levels of database building on the 1200 - temporary and full. Temporary simply indexes the filename and nothing more, which is great for regular mass storage devices as the filenames are most likely descriptive. But on iPods, it’s useless as the filename is random. Full database creation works just like DMM, and stores the results in the same file as DMM creates. One subtle but possibly crucial difference is that the 1200 does a full database build rather than an update that is possible via DMM. And there’s no editing of tag data either on the 1200 either.

On a side note, the DN-S1200 is fully CD Text complaint, so if your DJ life isn’t rooted in the USB realm, the 1200 will still give you feedback.

Using Music

Denon DN-S1200 review

Having first made your music much easier to use on the DN-S1200, just how can you access it? Easy really - hit the big red “SOURCE” button, turn the parameters knob or the jogwheel until it says CD or USB and hit the knob again. If already created (it’ll ask you if you haven’t), the 1200 will read the database and you’re off. With a combination of the parameters knob and back button, you can navigate your way through your music, as well as select from pre-made playlists or dig deeper via the folder structure on your device.

Denon DN-S1200 review

You can also search for music using the parameters knob to select the tag to look under, but then narrow it down further still by keeping the knob pressed and cycling through the alphabet to find items beginning with a particular letter. This works well, but Denon have also included a PS2 port to plug in a PC (again) keyboard to make text entry easier.Why USB you may ask - well the USB device inside the 1200 doesn't support hubs or multiple USB devices. I’d test it if I had a PS2 keyboard or a PS2 to USB converter, but I don’t. But Denon tell me it will work as long as the keyboard supports it.

One limitation to be aware of - you can only use 1 USB device at a time. There’s only 1 device USB port available and hubs aren’t support - powered or otherwise. If you’re happy swapping devices in and out with a CD bridging the swap then you’re good to go. Otherwise, give serious thought to how you manage you music with the DN-S1200.

Pitch

Denon DN-S1200 review

The DN-S1200 offers a broad spectrum of pitch ranges - 4, 10, 16, 24, 50 and 100%, although it’s worth noting that anything 50 and 100% aren’t available for MP3s. Pitch resolution is 0.02% at 4% , 0.05% at 10%, 0.1% at 16%, 0.2% at 24%, 0.5% at 50% and 1% at 100%. So in the range that counts for mix DJs, the resolution is respectable enough to hold a blend for a decent time. And you can lock the pitch as well. The pitch fader has a nice resistance to it with a solid centre click and just enough dead area around the zero point to ensure that hitting the 0% in a hurry won’t be an issue.

For those who like to make minute corrections while mixing, you also get pitch bending, achieved via the jog wheel (assuming you're not scratching of course) and via dedicated pitch bend buttons. Without a spinning platter, I guess yu have no choice really.

Even at 100%, the sound quality is outstanding - not a hint of breakup or artefacting at all. But these days, would you expect anything else?



And what digital deck would be complete without key lock these days. The DN-S1200 offers keylocking to all formats and does a damned good job of it as well. Slowing down beyond 20% heads into sounding like an effect, but speeding up - even up to 100% still sounds crisp. Not that you’re ever likely to speed up that much of course. Speaking of effects...

Effects

Denon DN-S1200 review

Yes - as you might suspect, the DN-S1200 has a few onboard effects for you to mess with. Nothing too fancy you understand, but enough to keep you occupied and the dance floor entertained.

Echo/Loop
This is a 2 part effect that allows a regular echo to become a loop via engaging full wet control. It operates in conjunction with the BPM that you can tap in or allow the 1200 to auto-calculate. Turning the parameters knob changes the time signature, from 1/8th beat up to 8 beats. Turning the knob when the loop mode is engaged allows you to crunch the loop down to 1/8th beats and hitting the echo/loop button starts you off again at the right currently playing point. There’s also a cool feature where you can fade out the loop as well and jump to the next track.

Strangely, when you press the platter, the echo stops as well. It only seems to work when the audio is playing unhindered. Weird.

Flanger
No surprises here at all. Working with the BPM, you can apply the flanger effect over a range from 1/2 beats to 32 beats with full wet/dry contr ol on the jog wheel. Just watch the levels when using this effect - it can get a little lively.

Filter
In the absence of filters on your mixer, Denon have very kindly loaded 3 onto one button. You get low, mid and high pass filters to play with, all switchable with the parameters knob and the the filter level applied with the jog wheel.

Like most other decks, it's one effect at a time. It’s all good stuff and works when you get your head round it properly, and also realise that auto BPM can’t always be trusted. But can get a little confusing if you like to use the scratch feature as you control the wet/dry of the echo effect. I would dearly have loved a separate knob to control the wet/dry amount which would have left me with the jog wheel to scratch on.

Hot Starts and Looping

Denon DN-S1200 review

One of the biggest advantages of the digital age is looping. Unless you use battle records designed to give you extended breaks or locked grooves, lopping is out of the question. Thus 99.9% of digital decks offer looping of some sort or other. Most conform to a similar and very simple metaphor - hit loop start, hit loop stop and reloop if necessary. Easy peasy.

Denon however do things a little differently. Looping and hot starts are based around the same buttons - the A1 and A2 buttons act as hot starts but also the basis of looping. Once a hot start is defined, hitting the “B” button make the loop. This works for the A1 and 2 buttons, effectively giving you 2 loops. The hot cues can also be used as stutter buttons as well. Of course, all hot starts and loops can be edited using the A/B trim button or cleared as necessary.

There is something that has been overlooked with looping. I like to be quite precise when I define my loops and like to manually define the start and stop points while holding the platter or pressing cue. Sadly, the DN-S1200 only lets you define start and stop points while your music is playing. This needs fixing in my humble opinion.

This looping is fully featured. Easy to use but does require some relearning of established looping logic. I found that I couldn’t walk up to it and use it right away. Very much of a RTFM thing, but you should RTFM anyway.

Next Track

Denon DN-S1200 review

I touched on this earlier, but the DN-S1200 has the ability to cue up the next track and crossfader internally between them. It’s easy to set up - hit the “NEXT TRACK” button and find the next track just like you would search for any other. Once located and selected, you get 10 seconds of the current track before the next track is faded in. And you can define the crossfade up to a maximum of 5 seconds.

While not immediately useful, this next track feature could be a life saver if your mixer or laptop crashes mid set or simply to crossfade on the same deck.

Memo Data

Denon DN-s1200 review

The DN-S1200 lets you store a certain amount of memo data i.e. hot starts, cue points, pitch controls and BPM data. This is all stored and can be recalled at any time, both for CD and USB devices. It’s handled slightly differently for each type of medium. For CDs, you get 1 memo per track with up to 5000 memos storable. For USB devices, the memo data is stored in the file itself, meaning that you can use your music on another DN-S1200 setup and still have your precious predefined memo data intact. Memo data can also be transferred from unit to unit via USB.

I tried memo mode and it worked - can’t really say any more than that really.

MIDI

Denon dns1200 review

And here we are again - harping on about how the latest deck can handle MIDI data. For that is how a deck is judged these days - not just on its ability to play and scratch CDs, but if it has a USB port and just how much can be done with it.

Now I’d reasonably expect that a deck in the price bracket of the DN-S1200 wouldn’t really do very much beyond handling USB media, but Denon have implemented a pretty comprehensive MIDI feature set here. It’s enabled with the “SOURCE” button, effectively turning the DN-S1200 from a CD deck into a MIDI controller.

I’m a long way from being any kind of MIDI guru so forgive me if I gloss over the minutiae of every MIDI command and how each and every application interacts with the 1200. You need to do some work yourself before spending cash. But in a nutshell, the DN-S1200 does a pretty good job of handling software via MIDI.

Denon DN-S1200 review

I tried Traktor 3.4 and Pro, which I’d say is the current standard for MIDI nuts out there. Using the Traktor setup from Denon, I quite happily controlled Traktor from one DN-S1200, switching between decks and using the jog wheel for scratching or pitch bending.

Another neat feature of the DN-S1200 (which ties in with using MIDI apps) is that it comes complete with an internal 24 bit sound card. So I was able to control Traktor with the 1200, but then also route the audio to my mixer.

I’m still running an old G4 Powerbook right now, but managed to get a pretty good latency with Traktor and the 1200 and pulled off some decent scratches while running some internal effects. But the performance will only ever be as good as the computer you’re running it on.

With anything MIDI based, you only get out of it what you put in. If you’re unhappy with the MIDI mappings, you should be able to configure your favourite app to run in any way you wish with the DN-S1200. Denon provide a ridiculously lengthy amount of MIDI documentation for all those DJs who like to tinker, and app writers who want to offer DN-S1200 compatibility. Denon also provides a software resource page to get you MIDI explorers started with various PC and Mac applications. 

D-Link

Denon dns1200 review

For those of you who plan to buy a pair of DN-S1200s, you can also streamline your setup a little more by using the D-Link port. This effectively allows you to share data between 2 decks, such as memo points, keyboard commands and relay triggers. Having only 1 DN-S1200 to play with, I was unable to test this, but using 1 keyboard between 2 units is a good enough reason to employ it in the DN-S1200 setup.

Ins and Outs

Denon dns1200 review

I’d say that this has been pretty much covered already but let’s just go over what the DN-S1200 has to offer.

PS2 port - for those old fashioned non-Mac keyboards.
D-Link - using an RJ45 crossover cable, you can share commands (not music) between units.
USB A - For connecting up external music storing devices.
USB B - Far data exchange between the DN-S1200 and your computer i.e. MIDI and HID data. And for USB audio into the internal sound card as well.
FADER - for fader start equipped mixers.

The 1200 also has line level RCA outs as well as the ubiquitous but almost universally ignored digital out.

Upgrades

The beauty of the digital age is that if a manufacturer doesn’t get it right first time, or can make something better, the upgrade is just a click away for end users as the DN-S1200 is fully upgradable via firmware. It’s a simple process - copy the file to the root of a USB key, insert it and restart with a couple of buttons held down. I upgraded this demo unit without an issue.

Summing Up

Denon DNs1200 review

Denon have certainly taken a long hard look at the market and tried to update the older DN-S1000 model into something that can offer digital DJs all that they need while retaining a good price point in the market place. Whilst making subtle improvements to the older model, the new digital goodness has been implemented very well indeed, apart from the woeful lack of support for Mac users and their music libraries. Having no Denon Music Manager software for Mac and the inability to use Mac drives or Mac based iPods is a real issue, especially considering that the user base is a lot larger in the DJ scene. It can be worked around of course by buying external devices and formatting them as FAT on the Mac and then doing all the music management ni the 1200 itself. But I don’t want workarounds - I want to be on the same footing as my PC using colleagues.

I was struck by how quickly I became unstuck with the DN-S1200. It wasn’t long before I needed to dig into the manual to find out exactly how things should work. I was also concerned with how quickly some random button bashing could confuse the 1200 into doing some bizarre things, but I put this down to my inquisitiveness and lack of knowledge on the unit itself. I’d say a few hours pouring over the manual and playing with each feature is vital, or else frustration is likely to set in. But once you’ve mastered the "simple and intuitive" Denon way (aka slightly quirky), it’s all plain sailing.

I was struck with how well the jog wheel performs, even when trying some more advanced scratch techniques, Again, I underline that basic scratching is possible, but turntablists need to look elsewhere. But it was when controlling Traktor that the real power of the DN-S1200 was apparent - excellent responsive controls and a good scratch feedback as well. Mixing was a total doddle, even with just one 1200 to play with.

Overall, the Denon DN-S1200 has something for all DJs. Great quality, performance and a rack of digital features that will appeal to a broad cross section of users looking for a compact but fully featured solution. And bearing in mind where we are technology wise, it’s fairly future proof for a few years as well. Just read the manual first!

Ratings

Build Quality
Despite the price, it has a very solid slab like feel. The buttons give a reasuring feedback as well.

Sound Quality
It's Denon so sound quality is assured. Even with effects and keylock, it still sounded great.

Features & Implementation
The jog wheel is good, and the USB features work well. It's just a little hard to get into at first.

Value For Money
It sits in a crowded market, but few have USB and MIDI support. And the jog wheel performance is better than most.

I Like...
• USB and MIDI
• The platter performance
• The compact size

But not so keen on...
• Lack of Mac support
• Can't set loops of effects with your hand on the wheel
• Not that easy to use without a read of the manual
• Confusion when using effects and jog wheel

If this is your kind of thing, you might want to check out...

Pioneer CDJ-400
Numark iCDX
Cortex HDTT-5000

The Bottom Line

If you're after a highly compact DJ solution, or just want to toe dip the digital scene, the Denon DN-S1200 is a highly recommended 9” square slab of unmistakable Denon quality goodness. There - I gave you a quotable for your press ads.

Gallery

Want some pretty picture? Click here...



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