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Numark CDX review - by Gizmo - July 2004

First seen at PLASA 2003, the Numark CDX caused quite a stir in the community. Could it possible be that a company has finally brought out a unit that truly allows you to control CD's with real vinyl? Well 6 months later, Numark are about to unleash the finished item onto the market and we're about to find out if it really is the holy grail or not.

Expectations are high, especially with Technics bringing out the SL-DZ1200 at the same time. Everyone has their eyes on the Technics - indeed some even have it in their targets. Due to it's heritage, it's expected to be the benchmark by which others are judged. The reality is that all the various CD decks are different. The CDX however, due to it's vinyl platter, is the one scratch DJ's have their eye on.

First Impressions

After getting over the fresh factory wrapped smell and assembling the CDX (fitting rubber slipmat and vinyl to the platter), it sits seamlessly in amongst my pair of Numark TTX's. The styling is the same as the TTX decks, using the same platter and overall layout. The CDX is lighter than the TTX - acoustics don't play the same role as they do on vinyl decks so some savings have been made with heavyweight cases. The overall build quality of the CDX is also lower than the tank-like build of the TTX, but still of a high quality. That said, if you plan to play out with them on a regular basis, I'd get some good cases to house them.

Assembly

The CDX comes with vinyl (albeit non-playable) - predrilled with 3 holes for the centre lug to snuggly fit to. A template is also supplied for you to adapt your own vinyl to be used. Don't worry - 3 small holes are all that are required so you'll be able to use the vinyl again if you wish. As with all Numark decks, a rubber slipmat is supplied, though I recommend using your own. I have a skratchworx slikmat on this model right now, that gives me a nice balance between grip and slip. This is one of the advantages of the CDX over other CD decks on the market - you can truly modify the feel as you see fit to exactly match your current vinyl deck. And that's it - all ready for action.

For more info check out Numark's CDX quick assembly instructions.

Layout

Overall, while still being a feature-filled deck, some thought has obviously gone into making usage as simple as possible. Sharing many common components with the TTX, the start/stop buttons are still in place, as are the start/brake wheels. And the reverse button is now the CD eject button.

One of the first things that strikes you is the apparent battle position layout. The pitch fader is at the back whereas on a regular deck (and almost every other deck on the planet) it's at the front. Immediately, club DJ's will be having to change the way they use decks to cater for this revision to the standard. But for turntablists, this position is second nature. Sadly, the CDX lacks the flexibility of the TTX to move the slider around. And you can't rotate the CDX as this will block access to the CD slot. I guess you can't please everyone but thankfully scratch dj's seem to have come off best.

As for the rest of the features, well they're neatly broken up into sections. The top is broadly split between effects, loops/cues and the display. One of the problems I have with the CDX is the buttons - they're small, set right at the back and the contrast between the red LED and silver button isn't good. i have my decks et at DMC regulation height but for DJs working in a club setup where the deck height might be higher, some difficulties may arise. Right now I find I have to take a little time to check the button I'm pressing. Still, once I get used to it I don't think it'll be an issue. And it's also worth pointing out that the CDX is a little taller than the TTX, but not so much that I've felt a difference between my TTX and the CDX.

Platter

Arguably, the CDX's ace in the pack is the full size platter complete with real vinyl control. The CDX shares the same (well almost) platter as the TTX. In fact, the TTX is due for an upgrade so that it uses the same motor as the CDX as well. But I digress. Numark have clearly learned from their TTX experience of overheating motors - the image on the left shows a serious amount of ventilation under the platter.

Despite original mumblings around the net when the CDX first showed itself, the audio is controlled by the centre spindle. The platter fits very snuggly onto it and the vinyl is attached with a reverse screw directly - hence the outstanding control. Because the platter is wedged onto the spindle, stopping the platter also stops the audio - just like a real vinyl deck. When I say stop the platter, the motor delivers a serious finger bleeding 5.0kg of torque so stopping the platter isn't something that you're going to do easily.

Features

As you'd expect from any deck made these days, the usual features are in place. Pitch is 6, 12, 25 and 100%. But why no 50%? Seems like a bit of a slip up there. Perhaps a software update might fix this oversight. The pitch slider is nothing special (a bit of a shame after the high quality of the TTX) and even lacks a zero click. Instead you get a generous 5mm zone either side of zero that stays locked at 0%. Interestingly, if the pitch drops to below -80%, the platter actually stops and you have control only from the pitch control.

File navigation is simple - using the search button and the jog wheel, you can quickly work your way through a track that's playing. Likewise the track select knob moves through the tracks one at a time, but if you keep it pressed, it leaps forward in 10's - very handy for those CD's full of short MP3's.

Added to this is the key lock. This work differently to the TTX - to adjust the pitch but not the key, hit key lock and adjust the pitch. Now if you scratch with the key lock still on, the effect is odd to say the least - the the new Technics I guess. However, if you release the key lock button, the key remains the same but is now properly scratchable. It works very well indeed - you TTX owner will have to remember it not the same as you're used to. In fairness, it's still not as good as the Pio CDJ master tempo but good nonetheless.

Reverses are fully catered for on the CDX. Not only do you get a full platter reverse, but you also get an instant reverse on forward play. Called bleep reverse, this allows you do do "ish" type edits on potty-talk littered tracks - handy for the kids party you promised to do that time for a friend when you were drunk. And to supplement these platter features, there's a motor-off button. Imagine you're at the kids party and your precious CDX is being mauled by all those high on additive kids... hitting the motor-off button allows the music to keep on playing without the platter movement. And if that isn't enough, there's a 33/45 toggle switch (the default is 33) to suit your spinning style. This is also switchable as a default as well.

Next up is a particularly useful feature that vinyl DJ's will appreciate. The scratch mode button has 2 useful features - forward scratch and cue scratch, or a mixture of both. Forward scratch does just as the name implies - scratches only in the forward motion. This function alone turns you into an instant fast cutter without the need for any fader control at all. Having the other hand free allows you to either cue up the next track, or more importantly get a swig of beer while scratching. The Numark gets an extra mark for that alone! One gripe - to access the forward scratch is accessed by keeping the scratch mode button pressed for a second. I find this particularly annoying as it's something I want instant access to. Cue scratch is especially useful for instant juggling. Every time the vinyl is stopped, the sound starts back at the cue point. So you can essentially juggle with one hand simply by setting a cue point to the beginning of a break and simply doing a quick baby scratch at the end to take you back to the beginning.

And there's fader start. This starts the platter when opening the crossfader. I've tested this with the Pioneer 909 mixer and it works well.

Beatkeeper™

Numark are making a big deal of this new auto bpm technology. They claim it is the most accurate automatic beat counter on the market. Used in conjunction with the tap button, you can get a visual reading from the 4 LEDs as well as the actual bpm on the main display. The effects are also tied into the Beatkeeper as well, so it's worth getting to grips with how it works to get the best from them. Should you feel that the bpm is incorrect, you can reset it by holding down the tap button for a second or manually tapping the tap button until the correct bpm is achieved. To ensure that the Beatkeeper is in sync beat and not missing the first beat of the bar, a simple touch on the tap button on the down beat will reset the Beatkeeper.

Cueing and Looping

One of the disadvantages of CD decks is that (rather obviously) needle dropping isn't possible. The next best thing is to define cue points on the CD. Essentially, when you press stop and start, the cue point is set. Editing this point is easy - simply rotate the platter (the sound will play) and then hit start. Hitting the cue button returns the sound back to the set cue point. Keeping it pressed plays the sound as well. Stutter returns the sound back to the cue point but keeps playing it, making for easy manual looping. Unless I'm missing something, I prefer the way the Pioneer units do this - hit the cue button mid play and that's the cue point set. Much easier. But let's not forget that all the cue points can be stored in the CDX's memory - 3000 points in all. That's something to be aware of - the cue points can't be moved to another CDX so if you plan to play out anywhere, you'll either have to take your own CDX's or do your sets with cue points made at the gig. Maybe an SD card would have been good, but then again, there's only so much you can addin to a deck and still keep the price down.

Now we've all spent many years and our hard earned cash destroying 2 copies of the same record to loop our favourite break. Now, with the advent of the digital deck, we can loop our beats at the touch of a button or two. Define the beginning of the loop by hitting "Loop In" and the end with "Loop Out" Adjusting these points os done with the jog wheel - hit "Trim" and move the jog wheel until the desired point is set. Reloop is like the stutter button but for the loop - pressing reloop takes you back to the beginning on the loop and keeps playing. With a bit of playing between cue and loop, some useful manual juggling can be achieved. And lets not forget the Smart Loop feature. Based around the Beatkeeper, Smart Loop will break down the loop into it's bars. Hitting shift with Smart Loop will shorten the loop by single beats.

Yep - MP3!

When the CDX was first announced, it was said to support MP3. Then with the later official press release, MP3 was mysteriously left off. Now as exclusively announced by skratchworx at MusikMesse, MP3 is back. And it's hella good as well. You can do everything with MP3 that you cam with regular audio. As a test, I burned 445 different files or various bitrates and lengths, some lasting literally a second - inside several folders. I burned this as a regular hybrid disk but also an MP3 CD. Initially, the factory fresh CDX hiccupped a little on some of the very short files and even looped on occasion. But recent downloadable upgrades have made the problem go away. Sadly, at this time the navigation of files is limited. Folder structures are ignored and so are MP3 tags. But the sound quality is excellent. It can only be as good as the sound going in, but the CDX doesn't seem to differentiate between regular and MP3 audio in terms of digital output. Be warned - the manual currently makes no mention of MP3 so you just have to dive in and have a dabble.

Effects as well!

2 times world champion DJ Woody came to the skratchlair to have a go on the CDX and was suitably impressed. After giving him a run down of what it can do and letting him have a play, I showed him that the CDX has effects. "F**king 'ell - it's got effects as well?" - oh yes indeedy it does.

Although there are only 5 effects buttons, some can be accessed by keeping the particular button pressed for a second - and each is controlled by the jog wheel below the buttons. In most cases, spinning the jog wheel gives an instant effect to your audio that slowly returns to normal. Holding the effects button keeps the sound at the required effect level. The range of effects is varied but pretty good:

Sonar: Hollow metallic effect
Slide: Changes the key while fixing the pitch.
Echo: As you'd expect. Presets of 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, 2 and 1-1. And you can play with negative echo so the effect happens before the music plays.
A.D.: Stands for auto decimation. Degrades the audio quality.
Filter: Allows you to play only a specified band in the frequency range.
Kill: Plays all but the specified range.
Chop: Breaks the music up, based on Beatkeeper settings. Imagine a Samurai fader - that's like chop. Combined with forward only scratch, makes for a useful technique.
Pan: Switches left and right channels based on Beatkeeper BPM. Like echo, you can specify the rate.

All are useful to have but there is a basic problem. Because all are pre-fader, effects such as echo get chopped off as soon as the fader is closed. Indeed echo stops when you stop the platter. Hmmm... hopefully that bit can be fixed with future software upgrades. Also, at this time a noticable click can be heard when scratching with some of the effects (filter and kill) at their extremes - but I'm sure this will be ironed out in future software upgrades.

Speaking of upgrades...

Setting the trend with the Axis CD deck, this unit is of course software upgrade able. In fact since I took delivery, there have been a few released upgrades, mainly to do with MP3 playback. Simply burn the downloadable audio file to audio CD, insert into the CDX and off it goes. I wouldn't expect to see extra effects like soon to be seen on the Denon X1500 mixer, more to do with improving playback.

And the CD unit itself is user replaceable should you find there's anything wrong with it. But again, don't expect to be able to replace the CD with DVD - the CDX is just as the name implies.

How good is it?

If you were to put any of the available CD options in front of any scratch dj, all they care about is how the platter feels. And having tried all the available decks out there, I can honestly say that the CDX is the best for turntablists - no question. When you think about it, the principle is so simple - take a regular deck and make it use CD's in the same way as vinyl. Because the CDX is essentially a TTX minus the tonearm, it is exactly the same as using vinyl, but without the skippage and record wear. And to closely match your own style, you can add your own vinyl and slipmats. Faderless scratches suddenly become much easier as you don't have to worry about the needle jumping because you've treated the platter like a bongo. Some scratches are even easier with the CDX. ProfessorBX taught me the wammy - essential near breaking your pinkie finger to hold the vinyl down on the centre while drumming with the other fingers. Now my pinkie will be safe from hand damaging scratches.

I know many owners of existing CD decks will say things like it's heavy and bulky but we turntablists really care much more about how the deck performs than how portable it is. All I know is that if I still played out, I'd take the CDX in preference to any other deck - even the TTX. Now I only need to take a handful of pre-burned CD's instead of heavy crates of precious vinyl and know that I can still do all the same sets and moves that I can with any other setup.

The Bottom line - for the hard of reading...

Let me break it down into one sentence - the CDX is by far the best CD deck on the market for scratch DJs. For the simple reason that it is just like using the best vinyl deck but with CDs. Take away all the bells and whistles that the CDX has and for turntablists, it's still the best. But in fairness to the other competitive decks out there, I have to rate it comparatively. Sound quality is excellent both for regular audio and MP3, the feature set is extensive including loops, cues, effects and key lock. The price is competitive pitched between CDJ-1000/Technics DZ/Denon 5000 and their younger offspring the CDJ800/Denon 3000.

As a testimony to it's greatness, everyone who I know who has used a CDX wants one. Even some of the brand loyalists to other decks have been know to heap praise on the CDX as well. But for me and my needs as a scratch DJ, I'd pick the CDX over any of them.

Rating - 9.5/10

Pros
It's just like a vinyl deck. Period.
Sound quality
Handles MP3
Good price

Cons
Some concerns on build quality compared to the TTX
Implementation of some controls could have been better


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