When Pioneer's CDJ-1000 first hit the market two years ago, conventional wisdom had it that the glory days of vinyl were coming to a close. The combination of recordable CD technology, CD mixers and Pioneer's revolutionary scratch-dial interface gave DJs an unprecedented level of control of music on digital media, and many found themselves thinking that the 1000's emulation of vinyl seemed perfect in every way but one: the motion of the platter. DJs playing CDs have long wished for an interface that simulates the dynamics of a turntable, and though many manufacturers have come close, none have offered a product that truly feels like playing on a real turntable.
CD jocks, pine no more for the hands-on feel of analog decks — someone finally got it right. Believe it or not, Denon has trumped the competition with the introduction of the DN-S5000, a tabletop single-CD player that features the standard trappings of a professional CD mixer with the added bonus of a motorized platter that accurately emulates the look and feel of a real analog turntable.
The S5000 is a tabletop model CD player, about the same size and form factor as Pioneer's new CDJ-800 — about four inches tall and roughly a foot on each side — but at 12.6 pounds, it packs four pounds of extra heft. The bulk of that extra weight appears to come from the motorized-platter assembly, a massive metal and vinyl affair smack in the middle of the unit, that looks a lot like an old 7-inch single sitting on a miniature turntable. Overall, my impression of the unit is that it's solid and well-constructed, and given that Denon's been making CD players for nearly a decade now, it's a pretty safe bet that the S5000 will survive many years of use under the harshest conditions.
A quick look at the S5000's chassis design reveals some well-thought-out engineering. All of the connectors on the back panel are recessed into the unit by an inch or so, providing plenty of protection for the output terminals if the S5000 is moved around frequently. Standard analog RCA outputs are provided along with a digital S/PDIF out for connection to computer audio cards or compatible digital mixers. A second pair of analog RCA and digital connectors is also provided for Alpha Track playback, an ingenious feature inherited from the Denon DN-D9000 that allows simultaneous playback of two tracks from the same CD.
Owners of the Denon DN-X800 digital mixer will appreciate the inclusion of ⅛-inch minijacks for X-Effect and Fader Start connectivity. The X-Effect connectors also do double duty as a data interface, allowing the S5000 to exchange the contents of its memory with other Denon CD players, such as the D9000 and D2600F. The only way to get data into or out of the DN-S5000 is through this interface — there is no slot for removable media, which would have made archiving the S5000's memory much easier.
The S5000 boasts such an impressive array of switches and knobs that it can be a bit difficult to sort out at first glance. The motorized platter is the centerpiece and, as such, takes up the most space, consuming 7.5 inches of the unit's length and width. A four-position knob allows the platter to act as a scratch disc for skip-free cueing and scratching or as a jog dial for precise positioning of a cue point in a track. Major unit functions such as Cue, Play, Alpha Track access and sampling are controlled by large rubberized buttons that are brightly backlit, making it a simple affair to locate the button you need in dark conditions. Basic functions are easy to find, and 10 minutes of quality time with the S5000 should be plenty to get even the greenest DJ up and running.
The fluorescent LED on the S5000 is a little small but still manages to pack in most of the info you might need at a glance. Two lines of text provide information such as overall CD length, track names, bpm count and parameter values; a digital readout across the center provides track number, position and pitch information. A row of dots across the bottom of the display provides a visual timeline of the current track.
The display is adequate, but the lack of a waveform display, à la Pioneer's CDJ-1000, is a major oversight. The 1000's graphic wave display is rudimentary but offers a quick and easy way to see when and where major changes in the music — breakdowns, choruses, intro and outros — will occur. The Denon lags well behind the 1000 in this department, offering only 11 featureless dots along the bottom of the display that flash in succession as the track progresses.
The motorized platter is the one feature that sets the S5000 head and shoulders above the current crop of CD players. A lot of hype surrounds the first motorized platter on a CD player, so first understand what the active platter is not: It is not an exact replica of an analog turntable. It doesn't have the same start and brake drag as a real turntable, though those effects can be simulated by the S5000's software, and its rotation speed is meaningless — the platter turns at the same rate whether the pitch control is set to -20 percent or +100 percent.
That said, the platter does do a remarkable job of bringing true turntable dynamics to the world of CD players. From the bottom up, the assembly consists of a motorized aluminum platter; a slipmat; and a 7-inch piece of vinyl called the “scratch disc,” which rotates on a large central spindle. The spindle is marked with a white line making it easy to accurately cut or spin back to a specific location. Cues, scratches and tricks like backspins work just like they do with real vinyl, but the optical sensors in the platter assembly — along with the unit's 16-second buffer memory — ensure that no matter how hard you work the disc, it will never skip. Scratch artists will appreciate the scratch disc's Forward/Back switch. In forward-only mode, the S5000 plays audio only while the scratch disc is moving forward, making it simple to cut in samples and dispensing with the need to close the crossfader while back-cueing.
Interacting with the motorized platter as I mixed my first track on the S5000 was nearly a religious experience. As I dialed in my first mix by dragging my finger along the platter, I found myself thinking a blasphemous thought: The S5000 may finally be the product that replaces my beloved 1200s. The platter responded just like a real turntable, and in no time at all, I almost forgot I was playing CDs! The scratch disc is far more sensitive than vinyl and had a tendency to respond a little too radically to my gentle nudging. But with a little practice and finesse, I eventually worked out the right pressure. From that point on, the experience was eerily like working with an actual turntable.
As a side note, just because there's a motor in the platter does not mean you have to use it. If you are a working DJ and unexpectedly find yourself behind a pair of DN-S5000s, or if you are simply more comfortable working with a stationary scratch disc, an option does exist to turn off the motor. With the DN-S5000, you can have it both ways.
SAMPLE AND HOLD
One of the key benefits of mixing on CDs is the flexibility and instant access that digital media offer. Sampling and looping have been staple features on CD mixers since they first hit the market, and the S5000 continues this tradition, offering two 15-second samplers with seamless looping, real-time splicing, stuttering and multiple hot-start points to instantly access predefined spots in your tracks. The S5000's sampling tools consist of two 15-second banks that stay in memory even after the source disc has been ejected, so it's possible to load a sample into memory and use it throughout an entire mix session. Samples can be trimmed, looped, reversed and scratched like a record using the scratch disc for endless mixing and remixing capability.
Looping is simple with powerful results — tap one of the Sample buttons at the beginning of a phrase, let the track play up to 15 seconds and hit the Loop button. Congratulations, you've just created a seamless loop! The loop will continue to play without interruption, giving you plenty of time to layer in other tracks and create remixes that analog turntablists can only dream of.
Instant-access cue points, called hot starts; loops; and other information, such as pitch and cue settings, can be stored in the S5000's nonvolatile memory for later use. This makes it easy to prepare cue and loop points in advance of a show for quick and easy access during performance.
ALPHA TRACK ACTION
So the party is blowing up, and you're the king or queen of all you survey, mixing and scratching between your two S5000s before a sea of adoring fans. You know exactly which song you need to play next, and you know that when you mix these two tracks together, you'll bring the roof down. As you thumb through your CD selection looking for the track, a sinking feeling hits you: The one track you want to play next is on the CD that's already playing! Don't sweat it. The folks at Denon anticipate this sort of thing, and they've got your back with the Alpha Track, a revolutionary innovation inherited from Denon's D9000 that enables playback of two tracks from the same CD simultaneously.
On the back of the S5000 is an extra pair of outputs dedicated exclusively to the Alpha Track. This makes it a snap to plug the unit into two separate line inputs on a mixer, cue the main track and Alpha track independently and mix back and forth between the two as if they were playing on different decks. In fact, set up in this fashion, it's quite conceivable to mix a seamless set on only one DN-S5000, and perhaps more important, it ensures that frustrating mishaps like the aforementioned scenario need never happen again.
In practice, I found the Alpha Track a little cumbersome to use. Kudos to the Denon team for adding plenty of visual indicators to let you know which track you're working with, but the main track and Alpha Track share functions on so many buttons that it can be terribly complicated to keep track of what's controlling what. As a result, it's very easy to make serious mistakes, so practice and attention to detail are an absolute must before you consider using the Alpha Track in a live situation.
BOX IT UP — I'LL TAKE IT
Denon has really upped the ante with the S5000. The unit does have a few drawbacks — such as the lack of MP3 support, no removable memory and the omission of a proper graphic waveform display — but these minor details are eclipsed by the magnitude of Denon's accomplishment with the active platter system.
Club DJs who appreciate the subtle nuances of turntable dynamics will feel right at home with the S5000, and scratch artists will find that the scratch disc provides greater control and a far more authentic feel than any competing CD player. Denon's new wheel of steel doesn't come cheap, but if you're an early adopter who doesn't mind footing the bill for cutting-edge technology, you can't go wrong with the S5000.
DN-S5000 > $1,200
Pros: Motorized platter. Accurate simulation of turntable dynamics. Two-track simultaneous playback from a single CD. Recessed rear-panel connectors.
Cons: No waveform display. No support for MP3 playback. Fixed power cord. No removable memory device.