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Many beginner DJs have their first experience mixing while using some else's equipment. Maybe you have finally taken that step behind the decks and found you really enjoyed it. Your next step is to buy your first DJ controller.
If you are a beginner DJ it's important to recognise that buying the best controller on the market for the most money isn’t the best choice as entry level controllers are made with beginner DJs in mind. As with any product, it's often the features that dictate pricing.
When you are a beginner DJ you don’t need to immediately jump to the higher end of the market. DJ controllers that are under $500 are considered beginner controllers, but don’t let this patronise you!
Beginner controllers are created so that you can ease yourself into the world of hardware and software rather than jumping in at the deep end.
Plus, when you’re a beginner, you don’t need to think about sample pads and 4-channel mixes, you need to gain proficiency with the basics and build on that foundation.
The best entry level controllers are under $500, and if treated correctly this purchase should last you a long time until you are ready to upgrade your controller.
It’s also important to understand that each controller model will train you with different features and the style you have created.
For example, if you want to learn how to scratch there will be a controller specifically for that, if you want to get used to the professional equipment then there's equipment focussed on building that familiarity.
Read on if you want to learn about the best DJ controllers under $500, and the features and advantages of each controller model, as well as the best value.
Best DJ Controller Under $500
OUR TOP PICK
The main focus when creating the DDJ-400 was to create a controller model that was similar to the notorious CDJ.
Pioneer's CDJ is the universal gold standard for venues and professional DJ’s and if your goal is to start playing venues and use the same equipment as industry professionals then the DDJ-400 is for you.
The main thing to pay attention to with this controller is its layout. The jog and spin wheel is purposely made to emulate the feel of the CDJ’s wheel. It has indentations on the jog wheel so that accurate beat matching can be achieved.
The loop functions on the top of the controller operate the same as the CDJ, most controllers will have a different layout for their loop function. Similarly, the effects on the right of the equaliser are laid out with a knob and button operation much like the CDJ.
To retain familiarity with the beginner DJ, the DDJ-400 keeps the regular pads on the bottom of the controller that most Pioneer DJ controllers have.
This enables the beginner to comfortably make the step up from using the pad FX and pad looping function to the CDJ’s FX and loop operation.
The BPM slider on the DDJ-400 can lack accuracy as sit is much shorter than a real CDJ, this creates issues for accurate BPM matching as well as getting used to the manual BPM matching that a CDJ requires.
The DDJ-400 is also recognised as one of the more durable controllers within this price range, made so you can practice on this controller for enough time to comfortably switch to the CDJ when you become proficient and comfortable with the DDJ-400.
Importantly, as Pioneer has a partnership with Rekordbox, you will get a free subscription to the full version of Rekordbox software when you buy this controller.
This is super helpful as Rekordbox is the industry gold standard for software, and is what they use in clubs, so it helps to get used to this software as well as save a lot of money with this lifetime subscription.
If you want to focus on becoming a more professional DJ that is proficient with the gold standard of hardware, then the DDJ-400 is the best purchase for you.
The Pioneer DDJ-SB3-N is an improved version of the DDJ-SB2. The main thing to recognise with the SB3 is that they candor towards the DJ who wants more features from their controller.
With input from DJ Jazzy Jeff, the SB3 is designed to train the scratch DJ with an engineered pad scratch feature which imitates eight different scratch techniques recorded by DJ Jazzy Jeff. The pad scratch function enables you to match the scratch speed to the track's BPM automatically, this is perfect for the entry level scratch DJ.
Beyond the SB3’s desirable scratch engineering, it also boasts the option of a 4 channel mixer. These 4 channels are activated by pressing a button labelled either 3 or 4.
This enables you to alternately control 4 channels with two wheels. In most 4 channel controllers you have consecutive and independent control of each channel, but this is a fun and unique feature on the SB3 if 4 channel mixing is something you want to practice.
In comparison to the DDJ-400 the SB3 has three FX options which are similarly controlled with a knob. This differs from other controllers which have more FX options which are dependent on software.
Unfortunately, the SB3 only comes with a ‘lite’ version of Serato. Serato DJ is one software alternative to Rekordbox, while not used widely by the professionals, Serato has its own features and layout that may suit your preference.
Yet, if you are only a beginner DJ, you may not require the full version of a software, so lite may actually fit your needs.
If you want the full version of Serato you will have to additionally purchase this subscription in addition to this controller. The sample function on the pads are only usable if you have a Serato Pro subscription.
If features and scratching aids are something you want in your controller, then the SB3-N is a great choice.
Hercules certainly isn't a name brand when it comes to DJ controllers, but the DJcontrol Impulse offers some interesting features if you’re interested in value for money rather than trusting a name brand.
For starters, Hercules DJcontrol comes with a full subscription to SeratoDJ Pro.
This means two things, firstly you're saving the subscription fee to Serato, but it also means that even though you are using a non-standard controller you are still getting to use standardised softwares.
While this controller doesn’t necessarily control Serato’s features as well as Pioneer’s could, it certainly has other desirable functions.
For one, the controller has an in-built stand to raise the controller higher off the ground which is a genius solution to a common controller problem - there is even a cool light underneath that glows and makes your controller stand out from the rest.
Most of the in-built features such as the FX and performance pad are pretty similar to the Pioneer. One main difference is the operation of the loop function which utilises a knob and turning system as opposed to the standard button system.
One feature I particularly like is the size of the low and high pass filter knob which gives you a certain accuracy when you are using it.
Hercules generally have a lower build quality as customers report this controller wears and damages a little quicker than its name brand opposition.
Numark is another good value brand that seeks to offer features outside of the name brand controllers. The Mixtrack Platinum FX comes with Serato DJ lite, unfortunately no subscription for the full pro version but you might not need it for your purposes.
The two focuses from Numark on this particular controller are on the FX and offering a 4 channel mixer. Much like the Pioneer SB3, the Numark Mixtrack Platinum has a chance to alternately switch between four channels while only operating on two physical decks.
This sets it apart from other entry level controllers and if mixing on four channels is a goal for you then this is a feature worth looking into. In addition, the Mixtrack Platinum has a unique and interesting FX function.
Located in between the left and right mixer, which is perhaps an unsightly choice, the FX operate with a paddle like many high-end mixers.
The operation of this FX function is desirable for some DJs, and the ability to select what effect you want to use via a singular button certainly solves the awkward drop down menu navigation of the DDJ-400/CDJ.
What stands out to me with this controller is the extended size of the BPM slider which is a super useful and often rare design choice on entry level controllers.
Having a longer BPM slider can be really beneficial to accurately matching BPM on two tracks, the size of the slider also encourages more entry level DJs to manually match BPM rather than simply using the SYNC function.
What’s more is that the Mixtrack Platinum also boasts two LCD displays on each 6” jog wheel which means you can monitor run time, bpm and scratching with accuracy and ease.
Certain features on this controller aim to reduce how much you rely on a laptop which is a great way to get used to more professional equipment and start using your ears to beatmatch and match BPM.
If you want to go left of the usual market controllers and stick with your traditional vinyl turntable while still having the benefits of digital performance pads, then the Reloop Neon might be the perfect product for you.
Compatible with vinyl turntables, the Reloop Neon allows you to still connect to a laptop and mixing software.
The Reloop Neon is engineered for Serato DJ, and if you have a Pro subscription, you can have the performance pad of an electronic DJ controller while still playing your trusted vinyl records.
This allows you to use functions such as loop, roll, samples and much more on vinyl records, which usually requires a much more technical and expensive set up.
The Reloop Neon provides you with everything you need to combine both the vinyl and digital worlds of mixing.
I use the Reloop alongside four 1210's running Serato DJ Pro, and it is fantastic!
The Denon MC4000 offers some of the most features on a DJ controller for under $500, although this doesn't always translate into quality or usability.
One thing to note firstly, is that the MC4000 is made from steel which makes it obviously extremely durable and sets it apart from other controllers.
Again, the MC4000 only comes with the lite version of Serato, while this means you can start DJing right away, you will have to invest in the Pro version of Serato to access the softwares full capabilities.
The MC4000 sets itself apart from its competitors by getting rid of the multi functionality of each feature and instead opt for workflow optimisation and simplicity by laying out each function individually on the controllers wide display.
This means that the performance pad is monofunctional and features such as FX and the sampler are laid out individually on the controller.
While this is a move towards simplicity and has its own advantages, it also has certain drawbacks.
For instance, if you are an entry level DJ, laying out all the functions separately like this can look extremely bewildering and confusing and isn't accessible to the beginner DJ who doesn’t already understand the function of sampling and FX.
This complicated layout also means that there are some impediments to the practicality of each function.
For example, having the sampling pads in between the equaliser for each deck is unsightly and not particularly practical if you did want to use samples.
Moreover, due to its choice to individually separate each function, this controller isn’t helpful if you want to use industry standardised hardware. The Denon MC4000 is made for the home DJ.
What To Expect From An Entry Level Controller
Most beginner DJ controllers usually come with the same set up. They have integrated two channels with a singular mixer to make your first steps in DJing an easy one.
This integration means you have a 3-in-1 bundle that allows you to simply plug into a laptop that has mixing software installed.
For more professional DJs you will have to pay more than $500 in order to purchase two turntables and an independent mixer; these entry level controllers focus on value for money and practicality.
The FX on these entry level controllers are either built into the pads or have an independent hardware for this function. In the past, FX were usually a separate piece of software and hardware.
Most entry level controllers also have pads which serve different functions depending on the priority of each controller. The pads are mainly used for hot cues which are a function that is made for the beginner DJ and isn’t present on higher level controllers.
Most controllers are compatible with most common softwares such as Serato DJ, Rekordbox, Traktor, etc.
Additionally, an entry level controller will come with some level of subscription to a mixing software, some come with subscriptions to the ‘full’ version of that software, and others only provide a ‘lite’ subscription.
Your subscription level affects what level of access you have to the features of that particular mixing software, lite often means you don't have access to every feature of that software, which means you may not be able to use certain functions on your controller.
Without a subscription key, subscribing to a software requires a payment plan which is important to factor into your controller purchase.
DJ controllers that are over $500 often have the same integrated mixer but boast four channels and/or a digital display as well as in-built mixing software that gets rid of a laptop.
As you can see, different brands of controllers each have their own priority and mandate when it comes to the design and engineering of each controller.
Pioneer is certainly the name brand when it comes to DJing and assures professionalism and quality due to its gold standard reputation within the industry.
If your goal is to become proficient on industry standard hardware then I would recommend the DDJ-400 which is the most professional controller on the market for under $500. Using the DDJ-400 means that an eventual switch to the CDJ or XDJ becomes very easy and comfortable.
Although, this isn’t the path every DJ wants to take. If you're particularly interested in scratching or manipulating tracks with FX, then other controllers might benefit this approach more than others.
If you have your own mandate for how a controller should be set out and engineered then there is likely one out there that will fit your specific circumstances and requirements.
The most important thing to consider when purchasing a DJ controller is how you DJ, what features you use the most and what features you want to learn or feel are missing from your performance.
Ultimately, each DJ has a different style and goal - this is the most important factor in choosing the right DJ controller.