The latest mid-range club mixer from Vestax has a great deal to offer in a paltry price bracket. Distinguishing itself from the competition with four channels and a simple to operate 24bit/96Khz DSP effects section, the PMC-280 could easily have been a class-leading champion for years to come. Such was the case with the preceding PMC-275, which seemed to dominate the bar and small club scene for what seemed an entire era around the late 1990’s. Sadly, it has been crippled by a terrible input layout, and may yet deservedly become an important warning to manufacturers: simple design mistakes can ruin an excellent mixer.
Presentation and Build
This new mixer from Vestax possesses a distinct, old school vibe. The back-to-roots glossy black finish reminds me of a basic Gemini mixer I owned in my formative years, hinting that Vestax would like to attract those who remember a time when Vestax produced mixers that were regarded by some as the finest money could buy. Some might speculate this also owes something to the less than positive response garnered by Vestax’s recent adventures in exterior decor.
Upon first press release photographs, I was concerned that the choice of colour scheme might not lend itself to dimly lit environments, which is at least one thing the nauseating ‘champagne’ finish sported by the old PMC-275 had going for it. Thankfully the bold, highly contrasted print all but makes up for the mute black finish. The extra visibility afforded by an aluminium lip on the rotary dials is particularly welcome; they look great and feel very positive and weighty. I would have liked to see a more contrasting colour used on the position indicators -the red is a little dull and I found myself squinting at the knobs on occasion. A little extra spacing or a different colour to distinguish the gain from the equaliser would have also been nice to avoid mishaps.
Importers should beware; the mixer uses an external wall-wart power supply which does not adapt to continental voltages. I found this very disappointing – nowadays it’s rare to see adaptors which do not operate happily anywhere from 100-250V. This mains adaptor also obscured the neighbouring sockets on all the power distribution boards I tried. I have several similar transformers that whilst being larger overall, still manage not to occupy more than one socket.
Overall I find external power supplies an annoyance; arguments that they introduce AC pickup effects are entirely unfounded given proper design, and the convenience of being able to plug in the mixer to any ‘kettle’ type lead is one of those comforts I have become used to and would not forgo lightly. Pay attention, Vestax – by the time I had pulled apart my setup in order to plug your mixer in, it had already lost a few brownie points.
Vestax have mercifully kept the number of screws securing the faceplate down to six, and ensured that none of the rotary knobs obstruct removal. Servicing is a painless process. The body is manufactured from thick rolled steel, although the review model did arrive with some light bending to one corner, no doubt damaged slightly in transit. I have little doubt that the very substantial weight of this brute contributed in some way to the damage – it’s a very weighty mixer.
The faceplate itself is made from much thinner steel, which is in places quite ‘baggy’, having enough play to be ‘popped’ in and out under finger pressure. Some of the LED meter segments do not line up correctly with the faceplate, and those which do line up don’t sit level. Interestingly, the LED’s on the left of the mixer appear almost perfect, getting progressively worse towards the right hand side. I would not be surprised if the components are populated in this order.
Below the belt, the body is made up of two overlapping pieces, both bent twice to form a ‘box’. The lengthways sections of this body protrude significantly at the front and back of the mixer, leaving ‘wings’ at either side, which are loose enough that you can ‘pluck’ them like a ruler played on the side of a desk as a schoolboy. Potentially these could be vulnerable to bending if caught on an edge, but otherwise everything seems sturdy enough, if a little rough around the edges.
The 280 is most horribly let down by a very poorly thought out input layout. It is true to describe the mixer as a four channel device –but it is no more and no less. Expect no comforts such as a standalone session input, or even the PMC-275’s useful top-panel line and microphone connectors.
There are also phono input limitations: the two outermost channels (1+4) are the only which sport phono preamps, so forget any ideas you might have about using three or four turntables without external pre-amplification. Remember that the SL12x0 and the PDX2000 MKI are still the de-facto turntables of today.
The combination XLR/jack microphone connecters are a welcome inclusion, but use of a microphone will cost you a channel and a second microphone will steal another. As the microphones operate on channels 1 and 2, the use of both will also force you to lose phono input 1, leaving only one phono input available. Worse yet, the optional USB audio board is tied to channel 4, toggling with the remaining phono input. Considering that channel 3 has only two line level signals assigned to it, one might assume that this would have been the natural choice location for the USB audio output, or at a pinch the second microphone. I’m clueless as to how such an obviously flawed arrangement passed the design stage unchallenged.
USB audio support
Despite the hash made of the signal layout, the inclusion of support for USB audio input on one of the channels is very welcome. I frequently use a number of USB audio devices in my setup, and would very much like to forgo the cabling nightmare and move toward a more integrated solution, especially when very often all I want to do is play a loop.
Vestax have chosen to make this function available as an as of yet unreleased expansion board which slots into the front of the mixer. I do not have access to the board, or pricing details, so I can’t comment on performance. Even so, in light of the outlined signal limitations I would advise against purchasing the expansion card if two phono inputs are required, especially when high-quality USB devices can be found very inexpensively and connected to any channel you please.
Those who forgo the USB expansion board are treated to a constant reminder of the cock-up in the form of an ugly screw-on plate, echoing Lincoln’s bulging wart on the left hand side of the front of the mixer.
Continuing from the seemingly botched connectivity limitations, the 280 is also curiously absent of any form of external effects loop. I find this quite concerning, since this mixer is pitched as an ‘effects mixer’; and will no doubt be marketed to those considering their entree to producing mixes using effects. The controls and signal path are already in place for a quite flexible system for routing effects, so it is disappointing to see that no option for expansion has been provided. Photographs of the big brother PMC- 580 show that it comes complete with a set of send/return connectors; the more cynical reader might consider that Vestax deliberately chose to cripple the 280 to increase the 580’s attractiveness. More realistically I would speculate that it is exactly this kind of corner-cutting that gives the 280 it’s very attractive price tag, but options like this would have made for a much more rounded product overall.
The effects line up consists of 16 of the ‘usual suspects’, such as a ring modulator, vocoder, digital delay, echo, reverb, flanger –nothing exceptionally stunning or inventive, but nevertheless a reasonably comprehensive arsenal of the trusted staples that work very well and sound more natural than you might expect from an integrated unit. There is, however, no possibility to combine these effects: strictly ‘one at a time’ only.
Vestax have chosen to minimise the control parameters, and this only serves to an advantage. Select the desired effect with a rotary dial, indicated by a dedicated display, and from here simple ‘rate’ and ‘depth’ rotaries, together with pattern select and a blue flashing tempo tap button are all that is required to get going. The beauty of such a system is that it is almost impossible to envisage any DJ –even one with very limited effects experience, being confused by such an arrangement. Within a few minutes even an amateur will soon be using sweeping effects changes as fluently as they would the equaliser to smooth out the rough edges in a mix and add some extra polish.
As a small aside, the four pattern select buttons are worth a mention since they rank amongst the least positive controls I have ever used on any DJ mixer, although thankfully there are LED indicators here where the cue select was left lacking. Slim, hard and almost sharp to the touch, they feel more like the manual tuning controls from the front of a cheap VCR. More concerning was the assignment control, a small cheap black switch with no painted indicator, which cycles through an odd sequence of CF-A, CF-B and MASTER. Fortunately, I doubt you’ll be hammering away on these controls too much, but they do spoil an effects section with an otherwise very positive feel and sound.
Setting up the mixer, the cue section did seem to be quite neatly placed, with adequately space afforded from the crossfade. Logical toggle buttons for each channel plus one for effects are just above a rotary cue to master fade, which itself sits directly above the master volume. Vestax must have thought they had their ducks in a row with this tidy, linear layout.
Unfortunately, placing the exceptionally sturdy headphone socket in line with all the controls simply obscures the entire cue section once a bulky headphone jack is inserted. Full points to Vestax for including a substantial headphone jack –after all, this is the first thing to fail in many club mixers, but expect to have to contort slightly and reach around the jack in a crab-pincer fashion when adjusting the volume. The toggle buttons for the channels feel positive, but since these controls are coloured black it is very difficult to distinguish the subtle difference in height indicating which inputs are toggled on or off. LED indicators would have been a simple but effective touch.
Managing more than two channels in the mix can be a challenge, and Vestax have come up short on metering indicators –two seven segment LED arrays monitor the master output, and a paltry four segment array beside each respective EQ section provides visual monitoring for each of the four channels. This isn’t quite as catastrophic as it may at first seem, as the four segment sections are very tightly co-ordinated around 0dB, so when matching signals to unity very little accuracy is lost. In practical terms, matching of signal levels using these meters isn’t nearly as difficult or inaccurate as you might expect from such a limited display, and I certainly never felt too restricted by it.
The mixer is pretty average in background noise terms; something we’ve come to expect from Vestax mixers. This does becomes more of a problem with the 280 than the 2-channel Vestax mixers I am more used to, as it is especially evident when all four channels are open. Since the mixer is pitched more for affordable functionality than critical listening I see little point in labouring this fact, but it’s definitely worth a mention.
More irritatingly, the mixer is prone to a number of ‘popping’ effects, not only on the line toggles but also evident on the crossfade assignment switches. It’s a shame; the line switches are right next to the effects controls, ripe for offering a quick pre-fader cutting of the signal -great fun with the echo and delay. The tempo tap button also emits a slight pop on taps, although I’m more than willing to overlook this as you’d be very hard pressed to notice it in the mix since you’ll be tapping this control on-beat.
The Vestax PCV fader previously earned the PMC-275 something of a reputation, with the crossfade being seen as one of the best on the circuit for small clubs and bars. Although in the upper end of the market considerable progress has since been made in fader technology, today it remains one of the better fader options in this class of mixer.
Control options are limited; contour adjustment for the crossfade is applied via a lone switch on the front panel, providing options for a ‘just dipless’ long fade and a much sharper curve that would benefit considerably from a reduced lag time. I doubt this will be a huge concern to the PMC-280’s target market, but in any event the web is awash with very simple modifications to easily shave the lag time of the PCV fader to very near zero. No hamster switch is present, but the lack of a crossfade reverse can be compensated for using the assignment switches.
The channel faders are long and very nicely linear, but heavy with friction resistance –considerably stiffer than the pitch controls on my ageing 1210’s. Performing quick movements like dropping out a snare on beat required two hands on the mixer, one to use the fader and one to steady the mixer, since the feet could not match the friction resistance of the fader and as a result the mixer slides. Quick fader movements are therefore out of the question unless the mixer is very firmly secured.
There seems to be an odd assertion from some manufacturers that since ‘scratch’ DJ’s will fawn and coo over a loose fader, then since mix DJ’s are seen somehow as diametrically opposed then they must adore an ultra-stiff fader. A comfortable balance of positive weight and smooth, low-resistance action would have been of considerable benefit to the PMC-280.
Possibly the single best feature of this mixer is the exceptionally powerful equaliser –or should I say, ‘isolator’. The white infinity symbol indicates true signal kill, and I was very impressed with the 280’s very smooth signal reduction down to nothing. Short of giving us four bands to play with, it is very hard to see how Vestax can improve on the 280’s equaliser section. It’s hard to wax lyrical about an EQ, but the 280 really does score top marks for a mixer in this class. Considering the limited parameters offered by the effects section, creating nice sweeps and changes relies heavily upon combining the two and I am very happy to report that they play together very nicely indeed.
No balance control is available, some may regard this as superfluous, but I have always found it to be very useful in compensating for old and worn needles. This may be a halfway moot point as the PMC-280’s channel indicators don’t display stereo information, but nevertheless it is a creature comfort we have come to expect as almost universal, although the extra faceplate space is welcome to keep the layout from becoming cluttered.
Up until this point, I’ve been terribly scathing throughout this review. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I loathe this mixer, so it may come as a surprise that I actually rather enjoyed using it. The effects are fun and very simple to use, and aside from the bungled signal routing and almost inexcusable lack of an external loop, it’s difficult to point out true major faults. I could pick small holes in this mixer for hours, but providing it is used in the manner for which it was clearly intended – to mix using two turntables and two digital sources, then it becomes a very attractive option since it can be had for as little as £399 from some online stores.
Vestax have used the 280 to fill a clear market gap rather nicely, being nothing like as pricey as the Pioneer mixers it so obviously seeks to undercut. Bar-owners on a budget will find the 280 a very tempting option, and features like balanced outputs do set it apart from cheap and cheerful ‘budget’ mixer territory. I would have no reservations recommending the 280 as an option for small, cash-strapped venues seeking to offer a full simultaneous digital and analogue solution without breaking the bank. The effects section merely sweetens the deal, although not quite enough to cover the bitter taste left by the glaring design boobs.
Are you on a budget? Do you need to connect your turntables and CD decks at once? Look no further. Seeking flexible connectivity? Then look elsewhere. It’s a crying shame: with a little more thought at the design stage it could have been so much better.
High quality materials have been used, although in places the assembly leaves something to be desired. Some of the controls used feel cheap, although all the critical controls feel sturdy and positive. The cue section could have been improved considerably by relocating the jack.
A powerful EQ section and a wise selection of 16 effects go an awful long way to making up for very average background noise qualities and noticeable ‘popping’ on some controls.
Features & Implementation
The features provided are exceptional at this price, but it’s hard to believe that an established manufacturer would release a mixer with such a flawed signal layout. No provision for expansion through external effects units has been provided.
Value for Money
Provided the buyer is comfortable with the myriad of signal restrictions, I would have no reservation recommending this mixer as exceptional value for money.
Pros: A four-channel package possessing a powerful EQ, beginner-level effects and balanced outputs at a tempting price
Cons: The restrictive input layout and absence of an effects loop leaves this mixer lacking for those looking toward future expansion.
The Bottom Line
A classic example of opportunity missed. Vestax have delivered a heavily feature-rich package, but a little more homework would have produced a more balanced product overall.