After a long career in dance music, it's rare for me to get excited about new DJ gear. I've played with a lot of “toys,” but I seldom come across serious equipment that interests me as a professional DJ and as a tech geek. Most of the CD decks available don't have what it takes to be installed in a club, and some aren't even worth playing. Ask almost anyone in the industry, and they will tell you that the Pioneer CDJ-1000 is the only model that they want to use, and you rarely come across anything else installed in a major venue. When putting the Denon DN-S3500 through its paces, I compared it to Pioneer's industry standard. The DN-S3500 truly raises the bar.
Straight out of the box, I immediately noticed how heavy and solid the unit is, almost like a turntable rather than a CD player. There is a heavy aluminum platter (similar to a turntable) that is packaged separately and requires some minimal installation along with the slip mat and clear plastic scratch disc that complete the platter assembly. For anyone nostalgic for the glory days of vinyl, you can replace the scratch disc with your own 7-inch record. That, combined with the fact that the platter spins during playback, re-creates a bit of the turntable feel that's missing in some other players. In its normal mode, the platter acts like a turntable; if you touch the scratch disc, you can scratch the audio playback just as though you were scratching a record. You can also turn off the spinning platter, which allows you to nudge the playback slightly forward or backward to bring a mix back to the proper tempo should it drift out of sync.
I hooked up the DN-S3500 to my mixer with the included RCA cable. In addition to the analog RCA outs, there is also an S/PDIF digital out and three ⅛-inch jacks for fader start and Memo(ry) in and out. The fader-start jack allows you to connect to any mixer with fader-start capability, and the system will begin playback of the CD when you raise the channel fader on the mixer. The Memo jacks allow you to connect two DN-S3500 players (or the DN-S3000 and DN-S5000 models) and share the Memo data stored on one machine. You can save as many as 5,000 Memo points in the internal memory, with one Memo group allotted to each track on each CD. For instance, if you have a CD with 15 tracks on it, you can store 15 Memo groups for that disc. Memo group information includes a cue point, two loop start and end points, pitch control settings and bpm data.
Upon powering up the DN-S3500, I was greeted by a host of backlit controls, a bright red light over the CD slot in the front and a large, easy-to-read LCD. There should be no difficulty using this unit in a dark club. After inserting a CD, the LCD above the platter immediately flashes the title of the first track on the CD, as well as the bpm of the track and the default time and play modes (Elapsed and Single). Those default settings, along with the Auto-Cue feature, demonstrate how well thought-out this design is and how it is tailor-made for plug-and-play usage. With other units, I am constantly checking to see whether Auto-Cue is engaged, if the time mode is on Elapsed or Remain and if the CD is set to play a single track or to play continuously. The DN-S3500 is a unit that is set up almost exactly the way I would like it to be, which is exciting in itself.
Digging deeper into the DN-S3500 controls, I investigated one of the most crucial elements of any DJ playback machine: the pitch control. As a house DJ, it is critical to be able to lock the tempos of each track as tightly as possible. While a turntable has the benefit of an analog pitch fader, CD players require digital algorithms to determine the accuracy of the pitch control. For solid beat matching, you want the increments between pitch adjustments to be as small as possible, and in that regard, the DN-S3500 stands alone at the top. Of the six pitch ranges, the finest is ±4 percent, which translates to a 0.02 percent step between each increment on the fader; that setting is the best I have ever seen on any CD player. The DN-S3500 defaults to the ±10 percent pitch setting, with a 0.05 percent step between adjustments, which is fairly standard. You can also set it to ±16, 24, 50 and 100 percent, which provides you with pretty cool options for special pitch effects beyond standard beat matching. Try putting the fader to ±100 percent and then hitting the Key Adjust button next to the fader, which maintains playback at the original key of the track regardless of the pitch setting. Then take the fader slowly down to -100 percent, and you'll hear the track change as though it is being stretched in real time. To select your choice of pitch range, simply press and hold the Pitch Range button next to the pitch fader, and then select your desired pitch mode with the blue backlit rotary Parameters knob located directly above the fader. Press the Parameters knob to complete the selection. The rotary Parameters control has multiple applications depending on what other features you are using, including the onboard effects, sampler and looping functions.
EFFECTS AND SAMPLING
The effects unit is located on the left-hand side of the DN-S3500 and includes Echo/Loop, Flanger and Filter. Once you select an effect by pressing the corresponding on/off button, you then control the wet/dry mix with the Effects knob (an endless rotary encoder), while the function of the Parameters knob varies depending on which effect is engaged. When you are using the Echo/Loop effect, the Effects knob controls the feedback amount, while the Parameters knob controls the echo times, which are set at musically sensible intervals that range from eighth note to two bars. If you set the feedback to the highest setting, loop playback begins from the time you engage the Echo/Loop button and continues seamlessly until you lower the feedback setting. A cool feature of the loop playback is that it will continue to play even if you stop the track, eject the disc or select another track on the CD. Once you have a new track selected and you've pressed play, the loop will begin an automatic fade out that lasts about four bars, or you can exit from a loop at any time by pressing the Echo/Loop button again. You can also edit the feedback length of your loop by turning the Parameters knob while the loop is playing, allowing you to do some interesting stutter tricks. Try starting with the loop on the 4/1 echo time setting, which will loop every four beats, and then rotating the Parameters knob counterclockwise to the 2/1 setting, which cuts the length of the loop in half, and then again to the 1/1 setting, which again halves the loop time. In that manner, you can create stutter fills at the end of a phrase and drop right back into normal playback by turning the loop off at the beginning of the next phrase.
The Flanger creates a sweeping effect, and the Effects knob controls its gain. Using the Parameters knob, you can change the flanger time from half a beat to as high as 32 beats. The lowest setting will add quick sweeps over the original source material, while the highest setting will produce a long, slow dive that begins to rise again toward the starting frequency after four bars. There are also Flanger time settings of one, two, four, eight and 16 beats, so you have numerous choices of how long you want the effect to sweep over your tune.
There are three Filter types: lowpass, midpass and highpass. The filters allow the selected frequency range, which is adjusted by rotating the Effects knob, to pass though unaffected while filtering out the source material that is outside of that range. For example, when you select the highpass filter, start with the Filter fully open by quickly twisting the Effects knob counterclockwise, allowing the full frequency range of the track to play through. Then as you turn the knob clockwise, the Filter engages and removes everything except the frequency spectrum above the selected point. When you are finished, I recommend returning the Filter to the fully open setting before turning off the effect because when you turn it back on, it will default to the prior frequency setting.
The Echo/Loop and Flanger effects are automatically synched to the auto bpm counter, so your effects will always be perfectly in time with the beat. If the auto bpm detection is slightly off, or if you simply want to select your own tempo, you can also tap in the bpm or manually dial it in by pressing and holding the Tap button and then rotating the Effects knob. All of the effects are pretty intuitive, so with a little practice you should be able to use them to add serious flair to your sets.
You can easily create seamless loops if you want to repeat a certain section of a track or give yourself more time on the mix out of a track. Two cue points, A1 and A2, designate the beginning time of each loop. Once you have selected the start point of the loop, set the end time by pressing the B key. The loop will then play from the A to B points repeatedly until you press Exit/Reloop, which returns the track to normal play after the completion of the current loop cycle. A unique feature of the DN-S3500 is that you can adjust the B point if your loop is not perfectly timed; simply press the B Trim button, and the LCD will display “Trimming,” with the length of the loop in seconds and frames (each frame is 1/75 of a second). The platter will also stop spinning, allowing you to rotate it and adjust the length of the loop anywhere from five frames after the A point to disc end. Once you have corrected the loop to your liking, save the edited loop by pressing the A key that marks the start of that loop. If you exit from a loop and decide that you want to bring it back in at a later time in the track, press the Exit/Reloop button, and it will immediately begin playback of the loop.
Another cool feature is Stutter playback, which is enabled by pressing the Flip button when you have a loop playing. Whenever you press the A button, the loop will play for 1 beat, then return to normal playback. Repeating that multiple times in quick succession will give you the Stutter effect, which also operates slightly differently when the Flip button is disengaged. In that case, every time you press the A button, the loop will play back for as long as you hold it down, allowing you to change the length of your stutters. Try alternating back and forth between the two modes; you can get some wicked results.
The Sampler operates similarly to the Loop function, with the exception that you can record a sample for as many as 15 seconds, which can be added to any track at any time. The recorded sample will play back in a seamless loop until exited, and you can use the B button to trim the end point of the sample. You can also change the volume and pitch of the sample or play the sample in reverse. Samples are stored in memory until you clear the sample data, so you can continue to drop in a sample throughout a set over any other tracks. You can also copy a stored loop over to the sampler, which provides additional creative flexibility.
There are three buttons located below the platter that add even more possibilities to your DJ set. The Brake button alters how the Play/Pause button stops playback, and it can be adjusted from an immediate stop to a slow wind down, lasting about three seconds. The Dump button reverses playback for about four seconds or until you press Dump again, which resumes normal play. Alternatively, the Reverse button reverses playback and the direction of the spinning platter until the button is pressed again, allowing for much longer reverse times.
With such well-designed and easy-to-use features, combined with comprehensive support for MP3 playback, the Denon DN-S3500 establishes a new standard of excellence for DJ CD players. If you are in the market for a solid unit that offers a plethora of tools and tricks at a reasonable price, then I highly recommend checking this unit out. You won't be disappointed.
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DN-S3500 > $699
Pros: Excellent construction and value. Superb design and execution of all features. Very user-friendly.
Cons: Permanently attached power cable. No removable storage for stored Memo data.