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Numark iCDX
Reviewer: Gizmo • Date: January 2007 • Price: Street £595/$599 • Link: Numark

Introduction

2006 was a turning point for Numark. Having dragged itself up from somewhere near the bottom of the DJ gear ladder, a string of key product releases (TTX, CDX etc) saw them effectively own MusikMesse 2006 with a slew of jaw dropping digital goodness - much of which is still to materialise on the shelves. But one product that has finally left the factory and is on dealer shelves is the iCDX.

On the face of it, it's not that different from much of what already exists in the market place. In a nutshell, it's a static platter CD player with effects and loops, much like several other products out there. But it's the other not so obvious features that set the iCDX apart from the crowd. And it's also the promise of what's come as well that really sets the heart racing.

The iCDX has a key feature that really puts some distance between it and the rest of the market right now and that's USB. This allows you to plug any mass storage device from USB card readers and key drives right up to massive hard disk systems so that you can read audio from external sources. But not only that - because of this USB link, plans are in place (and already happening) that will allow the iCDX to act as a controller for software. This is already the case for Numark's Cue and is up and coming in the next release of Serato. But let's break the iCDX down.

The Basics

Numark iCDX review

Coming in a 250 x 300mm unit, the iCDX is a vision of curvy edges in gleaming black, silver and blue lights (more blue than the TTX for the colour conscious amongst you). Current Numark users will be right at home as it has a similar feel as other Numark products. But watch out - the surface gets dirty quickly and is prone to scratching.

From a quality point of view, it feels solid with what feels like rubberised sides, a solid metal casing and black backed clear plastic face plate. The buttons have the familiar silver Numark feel to them and press without any issues. The only slightly suspect components are the sliders - they're quite loose and detract from the overall high quality of the iCDX.

Numark iCDX review

Taking pride of place is the significantly enhanced display. The iCDX boasts a custom screen like the TTX, unlike the dot matrix style ones found on the CDX and HDX. It's much clearer, brighter and can be viewed from a wide angle as well.

Numark iCDX reviewNumark iCDX review

While the rest of the market favours putting the start and stop buttons on the left of the deck, Numark have moved them right under the jog wheel, slap bang in the centre. Seems like a logical move to me and I found it very useful to be able to hit the buttons with my thumb while using the jog wheel. There's also brake and start knobs in the very clever and familiar recessed style on the left hand side of the platter and both offer up to a 6 second time.

Pitch

Nuamrk iCDX reviewNumark iCDX reviewThe iCDX offers a ranges of 6, 12, 25, and 100% adjustment via the pitch button, but like so many other features, there's more to it than just that. At 6% and 12%, the iCDX offers a pitch of 0.05% even if the display doesn't exactly say that - the digital point flashes to indicate that the iCDX is in between 0.1 increments. At 25%, this is reduced to 0.1% increments and 100% gives you 0.5%. One thing I did struggle with is the zero point. On the slider, when the knob hits 0%, a blue light comes on, but on the model I had, the knob didn't match the marking so you have to depend on the display rather than your eye to make sure 0% really is 0%. Hitting that zero point can be a real pain.

Key lock is also offered with the iCDX. Select the pitch range and then keep the pitch key pressed to engage. While very good quality, the maximum range I'd use it with is +/- 20%, although it is better at the faster end. Pitch bend is also in effect with a +/- 16% being applied via buttons below the pitch fader or by using the outer rim of the jog wheel.

But that's not all - the iCDX also has key change, leaving the pitch intact. Holding the pitch button and turning the parameter knob gives you +/- 20 semitone key increments while keeping the pitch exactly the same. But you can also still engage pitch and keylock at the same time if you want. The key change does sound a little digital if pushed (works better lowering rather than raising) but it's still a really nice addition.

Effects

Numark iCDX reviewIncluded with the iCDX is a small but useful set of effects: filter, echo, chop, pan, phaser and flanger. Instead of a separate button for each effect, there's a simple toggle to select the one you want and an FX button to engage them. To alter the effect itself, you simply turn the parameters knob for fine adjust or press and turn for BPM based tuning. But for the iCDX, Numark have added a wet/dry fader, making the effects really easy to use. These are a standard addition to any digital deck these days and while I fail to see the usefulness of a pre-fader echo, it's a nice set to have onboard.

Cues, Loops and Samples

Numark iCDX review

No digital deck would be complete without at least some sort of looping and cues, and the iCDX has them by the bucketload. It's all controlled via a bank of buttons above the jog wheel.

Numark iCDX reviewYou have the basic looping function where you can define the in, the out and stutter the loop as well for pitch shifting madness - and you can also adjust the bar length with the shift toggle, either lengthening the loop or shortening it down to just a single beat. But pressing the mode button toggles the 3 modes of loop-2, hot cues and samples. When loop-2 mode is selected, the 1, 2 and 3 buttons act just like the one above it, giving you a second loop to play with. The loops can't be played together but it's handy to have a second one set for some on hand remix action.

Hot Cues

Numark iCDX reviewThe hot cues work just as you'd expect - define the hot cue by pressing "REC" and the number button. Each time you hit the relevant button, the track immediately jumps to that point. 3 points can be define and these will jump in wherever you press them. Defining a bass, snare and say a horn stab makes the hot cues a lot of fun. But it's the sampling where things get interesting.

Samples

Numark iCDX reviewYou can store a 5 second sample on each of the number keys, either by pressing REC and then the number key once to start and then to stop or by simply letting it fill the 5 second sample length. The sample is an exact copy of whatever audio is playing at that time - effects and pitch are intact as is any scratching, stuttering etc - it's a sample after all, so the option is there to build some pretty nice music. But things get really clever with the sample parameters. You can determine is the sample plays over or knocks out the underlying audio, if it plays in reverse and the playback volume as well. And this is per sample as well so you can have one sample knocking out, another in reverse and another playing quietly - or a mix of all 3 per sample. The only limitation is that while samples will play over the source audio, they don't play over each other. And unlike hot cues, the sample only plays for as long as you hold down the key.

Another thing to be wary of is that the second set of functions only work for as long as you stay in that mode. Flick from hot cues to samples, and the hot cues are lost.

Overall, the implementation of loops, hot cues and samples is extremely impressive and sets the ICDX apart from its competitors.

The Jog Wheel

Numark iCDX review

Taking the name of Numark's scratchtastic CDX, I initially had high hopes for the performance of the 6" jog wheel. But then I wondered if it really could be as good as the CDX, bearing in mind the static platter and lack of vinyl. Lowering my standards somewhat when approaching the iCDX, I was pleasantly surprised with the performance.

Numark iCDX reviewLike the CDX, there are a number of modes but the iCDX bring some new ones as well. By default, the jog wheel acts as a pitch bend for playback but once the scratch button is engaged, it's time for some hands on manipulation. The centre of the jog wheel is activated by pressing down and is very responsive, lacking the very obvious click encountered on it's competitors. But releasing the wheel means instant release, which can make for some nice digital scratch stutter effects. But Numark have though about this a little and given the option to add a slight delay on releasing the wheel. The best performance for scratching can be had when the unit is in pause mode. Because this doesn't rely on having to worry about pressure, cuts sound better but that's just my personal opinion. Applying the pressure does mean a hefty amount of drag under the jog wheel, something that takes a little bit of time to get used to. But that same drag also makes some techniques easier.

Adding to the normal and juggle cheating cue scratch modes found on the CDX, there's also the bleep mode. Imagine scratching for a moment and releasing and the audio picking up where it would have been if you hadn't scratched - that's bleep mode. And all these modes have the forward only function as well.

Numark iCDX reviewMatching these scratch modes is reverse and bleep for the source audio as well. There's fun to be had with this switch for half timing beats. I'm just not quite sure how much hammer this toggle will take. It's like Jazzy Jeff and transformer switches all over again.

One problem with digital decks is working out where the audio is up to for pulling back. Pioneer have the neat centre display and Numark have their own system. Located around the jog wheel are 20 small blue LEDs which act as the marker, 3 of which come on and simulate the spinning. When you pull back, only one stays lit and on the whole is as accurate as you can get with a small number of LEDs. In practice I found this hard to use as trying work out which LED was the actual marker was impossible. I ended up trusting my hands rather than flashing lights. There's also a rather arbirtrary progress bar indicator on the screen but it's only a guide.

The thing to remember is that this isn't a scratch deck, simply a deck that can scratch. Perhaps Numark should have spent a little more time on the jog wheel considering the superior performance of Pioneer and Denon decks. That said, for non-scratchers, it does scratch very well indeed, and as long as you bear in mind that this isn't for hardcore turntablists, you'll be more than happy with the performance.

Sources and Formats

Numark iCDX Review

Via the DVD drive (yes that's DVD), you can read a variety of formats from audio, data and MP3 CD right up to double layer data DVDs. It's about time DVD was embraced as a format - shame it's just in time for media to become obsolete as hard drives take over.

Load times for CDs are a little slower that the CDX, coming in at around 10 seconds until the disk is ready to spin. This does include reading and displaying CD text though and doing a degree of BPM reading ahead of time. All in all, my experience using a whole range of CDs and DVDs went smoothly, but I fear that the drive is a little fussy with less than perfect media, as disks that read fine in other drives struggled inside the iCDX, especially DVDs. One other thing - the iCDX vibrates like a washing machine on a spin cycle when a CD is inserted... well perhaps not quite as much as that but it's highly noticeable when you touch the unit.

Mass Storage

Numark iCDX review

Now to USB devices. As previously mentioned, you can connect all manner of external sources to the iCDX via the USB Master port. I managed to connect a key drive, compact flash card via a reader and a 30gig Mac formatted iPod and a 1gig Windows iPod Nano without an issue. I also connected up my backup 250gig HFS+ HD but after what seemed like an eternity i.e. way too long for any DJ to wait either at home or especially in a club, I gave up - something like 30 minutes. My guess is that drives above a certain size aren't supported. But from a usage and cost point of view, mirroring 2 smaller drives is both good sense and more cost effective. A pair 60gig pocket drives come in dirt cheap these days and hold more music than you'll need in an evening - even uncompressed. Note - the iCDX doesn't support NTFS.

Something worth noting - despite the labelling, the iCDX doesn't work as a true slave/master configuration. You'll still need 2 iPods, 2 HDs etc if you want to run a pair of iCDXs. For example, you can't run 1 iPod and share it across 2 iCDXs. Numark's thinking is that with USB drives being so cheap these days, you should really have a backup of your main music source anyway and simply use that as the second drive.

Plugging in an audio source is easy - insert the disk or plug in the media and hit the "SRC" button. This will allow you to cycle between sources and select the one you want. The iCDX then reads the content of the selected source including the folder structure and then returns control to you. This however can only be done when the iCDX isn't playing. Plugging in a USB device for example doesn't scan while a CD is playing, which would have been nice to save time. And scanning times depend on media. A DVD stuffed full of MP3s or a 60gig iPod aren't exactly quick loaders - something to be mindful of if you're trying to locate a track in a hurry. And rescanning takes places EVERY time when you switch between mediums. Playing tracks from say a USB device and CDs means rescanning between each track on each medium.

If you plan to use iCDXs, plan your media carefully as swapping between CD/DVD and USB is a real pain.

Navigation

Navigation is simple enough. Once the media has been scanned, it looks at the root first for tracks. If you want to navigate folders, pressing the "BACK" button and using the track knob allows you to work your way through the folder names and clicking on the track button selects that folder. Be warned - folder structure is on the whole meaningless. When the media is scanned, the folders simply show up alphabetically - thus folders called "side 1" neatly stored in named folders will all appear as a long list of side 1's - one after another - with no clue as to where they are or what's in them.

Search through tracks is easy - hit the "SEARCH" button and use the jog wheel to zip through the track to find the point you want.

MP3 Only?

Numark iCDX reviewNow here's a bit of a deal breaker. Usually people ask which formats a deck can play and for a long time, the biggest problem was the absence of MP3. Now Numark have seen the line in the market and boldly jumped right over and now offer ONLY MP3 on the iCDX - no WAV, WMA, AIFF or any other acronym I can think of. I know because I tried them.

I can just see the purists organising iCDX burning parties already. In reality, it shouldn't be an issue at all as likely buyers of iCDXs and their kind aren't likely to be purists. And these days, a high bit rate MP3 sounds no different to an uncompressed format anyway.

Software Support

Numark iCDX and Cue reviewOne of the major selling points of the iCDX is its ability to work - via the USB slave port - with serious DJ software packages. It's already in place for the next release of Serato (you'll still need the full package though) but Numark's Cue software works perfectly with the iCDX. Note - this isn't intended to be a complete review of Cue - that will come another time - but linking the iCDX up to a PC running Cue opened up a whole new world of fun. Obviously 2 iCDXs are better but I got a glimpse of what's possible.

Cue takes over much of the functions of the iCDX, allowing you to use the functions of the iCDX inside Cue. The jog wheel works as normal, pitch does too and the functions of cue, samples and loops work from within Cue. The obvious main advantage of using Cue is having all your music on your computer as well as having video at your fingertips, but still having the tactile interface of the iCDX without having to dehumanise your DJ experience with pointing a clicking too much.

Numark iCDX and Cue review
Numark iCDX and Cue review

But having Cue as part of your setup gives you a lot more features than just using the iCDX as a controller. Suddenly all your existing audio is available to you as Cue can read the majority of audio formats out there. You also get the extra loops and samples that are BPM matched as well. There's also a lot of extra effects that work just fine and are triggered simply by engaging the FX button, and obviously there will be way more effects out there before long. Cue also works with VST plugins so all that functionality is available for use with the iCDX. And let's not forget the added visual dimension of having the equivalent of a really big iCDX display. That said, Cue does feed info back to the iCDX so you at least know which track is playing on the iCDX screen.

It takes a little bit of time to get used to the transition of working with a laptop but the extra facilities are well worth it. And it's seamless as well.

But How Does It Sound?

Always the big question. Having tried every CD deck on the market, I'd say the iCDX is pretty hot. For scratchers, the slow drags are always a good test and the iCDX does them without a single hint of breaking up into a digital mess. Pitch up or down and the sound is smooth. Key lock and change is good as well - just don't push it too hard.

It's always a case of garbage in garbage out but no matter what the medium, the iCDX always gives outstanding sound quality every time.

The Rest

Numark iCDX reviewThere's a few functions left to cover off. Pressing the "TIME" button allows you to toggle between track elapsed, remaining or play order. Hitting the "PLAY" button allows you to determine how the tracks are played. Single plays the track and stops, SingleReplay keeps repeating the current track, Random simply plays random tracks and Continuous plays the whole play list and then starts over. You can also have a nice crossover fade between tracks as well, configurable between 1 and 3 seconds. Finally, you can make your own playlists with the "PROG" button.

Round the Back

Numark iCDX review

Having covered the USB ports, let's look at what's left. In the publicty shots, you'll see that a 5G iPod take pride of place at the back and this is achieved via an optional dock (didn't come with the demo unit). Otherwise, no surprises here really with RCA outs, fader start and relay filling up the rear of the iCDX. There's also digital out for those who need it. One very welcome addition and looking to become an industry standard is the power supply connector. Kettle leads and normal transformers have a nasty habit of being pulled out so this screw-in style of power is a really good addition. Putting the power switch at the front would be a good idea as well but it's at the back. Not a problem - just an observation.

Summing up

Numark iCDX reviewIt's always good when I play with a product for a while and come away without finding anything really wrong with it, and this is the case with the iCDX. There are things that could be done better but it really is a great product.

As a CD deck, the iCDX is a pretty and compact rehash of the established format, but does have a few bells and whistles that sets it apart from the crowd. The multi-function trigger buttons offering 2 loops, hot cues and samples are amazing and capable of some hot tricks. The key change is a worthy addition to any deck but the real hot biscuit is USB. The writing is on the wall for traditional media and the iCDX embraces every type of USB storage device known to man (albeit slowly on bigger drives). It's this year's hot potato with a host of fresh product hitting the market all the time (well... announced at least). But the crowning glory is the software hookup. right now it's Numark's own Cue and the forthcoming v1.7 of Serato but it's likely that other software will soon follow suit.

Price wise, it's sat in the middle of the market but IMHO is occupying a slot towards the top end of the market. When you balance the standard features with the hot new stuff that others don't have just yet, the iCDX is ahead of the pack. I think - like any other product - you need to feel the iCDX before buying but rest assured, everything else is quite excellent.

Ratings

Build Quality - 8/10
Overall excellent and feels solid. The buttons press as expected but maybe just let down by the fairly flimsy faders.

Sound Quality - 9/10
Excellent sound, even from slow drags. Not a hint of digitalness. Just don't push the key lock too hard.

Features & Implementation - 9/10
It's hard to fault the iCDX in use. It's stuffed full of features, all of which work really well. Working with traditional media and HD is perhaps a little flaky but using it with Numark's Cue software is outstanding.

Value For Money - 9/10
The market seems to be back in the straight $1=$1 conversion rate right now, but that said, it's highly spec'd and although having a mid range price, is a top notch deck.

Pros:
• USB features
• Hot cues, loops and sampler
• DVD drive

Cons
• Working with CD and USB isn't as smooth as it could be
• Jog wheel response could be better
• Slow indexing of bigger USB drives

The Bottom Line

Outstanding and innovative digital deck from Numark that fulfils today's needs and tomorrows as well and at a great price as well.

Big thanks to Numark for the loan and technical assistance.

 



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