Numark's iCDX digital audio player/software controller builds on its already impressive line of in-house engineered DJ products. The iCDX is a tidy little package that does triple duty as a stand-alone tabletop CD/MP3 player, a playback interface for external USB mass-storage devices such as iPods and a PC software interface controller.
At first glance, the iCDX looks like your standard tabletop CD player, incorporating a slot-loading optical drive, a touch-sensitive jog wheel, an array of buttons and an LCD into an efficient 11.5-by-9.5-by-4-inch box. With its attractive piano black on silver finish, blue lighting scheme and clear display, it struts alongside the best looking tabletop players out there.
What sets the iCDX apart from the current crop, however, is its built-in USB connectivity. The iCDX can be configured as a master controller for a variety of mass-storage devices, including USB flash drives, external USB hard drives and MP3 players, such as Apple iPods. Furthermore, the iCDX can also be hooked up as a slave HID (Human Interface Device) controller for use with software packages such as Numark Cue and Serato Scratch Live.
The back panel of the iCDX features a clean layout with all available inputs/output clearly labeled and easily accessible. Also on the back is the slightly recessed power switch.
Connections include a pair of standard RCA line-level outputs, a single RCA-based S/PDIF digital out and two USB connectors: a female A-type connector labeled Master (for connecting external USB devices) and a female B-type connector labeled Slave (for connecting the iCDX to your PC). The iCDX also includes an ⅛-inch remote Fader Start connector that can also accept a footswitch (for external start/stop control), as well as an ⅛-inch Relay connector that works with compatible CD players to alternate playback from one device to the other. Power is provided by an external power brick that connects to the unit with a smart screw-on power connector that eliminates the risk of accidentally unplugging the player.
To use the iCDX as a tabletop player, simply hook up the RCA outs to your mixer of choice, plug in the power connector and turn it on. Load an audio CD or data CD/DVD, and you are ready to play. The large LCD, located centrally across the top, displays the track name, number, bpm and time, as well as other information such as pitch, effect, hot cue and loop status. The LCD is highly visible, with an attractive bright blue design and good off-angle viewing.
Besides audio discs, Numark included support for only MP3-encoded audio files (except on iPods, where it will play any song in a playlist). While MP3 is the most common digital audio-file format, it's a curious limitation given that other Numark products, the HDX for example, support MP3, WMA, WAV, Ogg Vorbis and FLAC. When you first load a CD/DVD, the iCDX takes a while to read the table of contents and begin calculating bpm values. The delay is longer than I would prefer, but not unreasonably so. Once loaded, the first track on the disk will be cued up and ready to play. Also, the iCDX exhibits a slight vibration when playing from CD/DVD.
To accommodate its features, the iCDX has many buttons, dials and switches. For such a small device, they are laid out impressively well in logical groupings around the jog wheel. The attention to detail that went into each button's design and location is apparent. I don't use tabletop CD players all the time, yet I found everything to be in intuitive locations with controls of the right size for their frequency and type of use.
Less frequently used buttons, such as those for changing system-level settings, are fairly small and located on either side of the LCD at the back of the top surface, along with the decent-size Parameter and Track knobs used for adjusting settings and navigating playlists. Some settings require you to press the knob like a button; some require turning the knob.
The more frequently used controls are larger and grouped logically around the jog wheel: effects section on the top left; looping and multimode buttons on the top right; pitch and key lock controls to the right (where they would be on a vinyl turntable); and Scratch mode, reverse, brake/start adjust and eject controls to the left.
Cue, pause and play are located centrally underneath the jog wheel, where they are easily accessible and of a decent size with good tactile response. In fact, all of the buttons, knobs and switches are high quality, with the right level of resistance. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the pitch fader and wet/dry fader, both of which were sadly notable for their lightweight feel.
The 6-inch static jog wheel is touch-sensitive. If you manipulate the wheel using the outer part, it acts as a temporary pitch bend. If you use the inner part of the wheel, you can scratch (by enabling Scratch mode) or search through a track (by enabling Search mode). With respect to scratching, the unit sounds remarkably good — even for slow drag-style scratches — however, you have to press down on the platter slightly when scratching, and there is too much friction to make it usable for any real turntablist wizardry. Given that the iCDX is not aimed at the scratch DJ market, that is not a major concern.
Using the Parameter knob, you can change the scratch setting from vinyl emulation to the following custom modes: Forward (only forward motion is heard), Bleep (once you are finished scratching, the music will continue playing where it would have been if you hadn't scratched), Bleep Forward (combination of Bleep and Forward mode), Cue (where scratches always begin from the current cue point) and Cue Forward (combination of Cue and Forward mode). Cue mode is particularly interesting because you can create some cool beat-juggle effects if you set the right cue point.
PITCH ‘N��� MOAN
The iCDX calculates a track's bpm ahead of time, but it will occasionally make bpm corrections as the track plays. Unfortunately, the bpm-detection engine is not incredibly accurate; more than half of the tracks I played required correction of some kind. Curiously, they were often calculated between 3 and 6 bpm too fast. That is surprising given the excellent performance of Numark's BeatKeeper engine used in products such as the HDX. This wouldn't bother me that much, except the effects section uses bpm to set the “correct” value for most effects. Echo and Chop both sound particularly horrible if the calculated bpm is incorrect.
Mix DJs will love the iCDX pitch, tempo and key features. Pitch can be set to ±6, ±12, +25 or ±100 percent. Pitch resolution varies based on the setting, allowing tweaks as fine as 0.05 percent when set to the ±6 percent range — very precise. Key lock can be enabled, allowing you to adjust the tempo of the song without changing the key, and it sounds better than that of many other digital audio players, provided you don't change the speed too much. By holding down the pitch button and adjusting the parameter knob, the iCDX also allows you to shift the key up or down in semitones while keeping the tempo constant — a nice inclusion.
THE LOOP SCOOP
The looping controls use the familiar three-button In/Out/Reloop layout. The buttons are responsive, and the looping controls work well. The iCDX also includes a three-way Shift toggle that can be used to adjust the loop length by half or double increments, which allows for some handy remix-on-the-fly looping effects.
One great addition to the iCDX is the Multi-Mode buttons that can be configured to one of three modes. In Loop-2 mode, they act as a second set of looping controls. While you can't play the two loops simultaneously, you can switch back and forth between loop points, allowing for some further creativity. In Hot Cue mode, the buttons can be used to set three “instant-jump” cue points within a track. Press the Mode button until Hot Cue is displayed, and then press the Rec button to arm the recording of a cue point. Press one of the three Multi-Mode buttons during a song to store the cue point, allowing you to jump instantly to that point in the song at any time. In Sample mode, the trigger buttons allow you to record a maximum of 5 seconds of audio per button. Using the Mode button, switch to Sample mode and press Rec to arm recording. Press a trigger button to start recording and again to stop (a maximum of 5 seconds). To play back your recorded sample, simply press and hold the relevant button. The audio will play for as long as you have the button pressed.
The iCDX also includes six onboard effects that can be applied to the audio: Echo, Chop, Pan, Phaser, Flanger and Filter (a high/mid/low/bandpass filter). Numark thoughtfully included a Wet/Dry fader to adjust the effect level (the percentage of which displays on the LCD). Rotating the Parameter knob allows you to adjust the setting for each effect; pressing that knob also allows you to sync the effect to bpm for all but the Filter effect. For remixing, the effects section is a great addition, and the wet/dry fader enhances its usefulness further.
THE PORTS OF NO RETURN
To use the iCDX as a controller for iPods and other USB mass-storage devices, simply plug the USB cable from your device into the USB Master port, press the SRC button and select USB Master. The iCDX will recognize your device and load the music found there. The iCDX can load only 999 tracks at one time, so if you have a folder filled with thousands of tracks, you'll have to split them into subfolders. iPod integration requires you to first create playlists in iTunes, likewise limited to 999 tracks each.
Navigating through songs on external devices can be a bit of a pain, simply because the LCD displays only the ID3 tag track name. Playlist navigation could be improved, and load times are even slower than CD, typically because the playlists are bigger. These beefs aside, the implementation is flawless. Everything you can do with audio on CD, you can do with the audio from an external device. I tested both my 60 GB iPod and a USB flash drive and had tons of fun mixing, looping and scratching songs I may never have burned to CD for DJing purposes. One side benefit of using an external device is that the CD drive stops spinning, eliminating vibration.
Completing its trinity of uses, the iCDX also functions as a software controller for a Mac or Windows computer. Officially supported are the popular Serato Scratch Live and the new Numark Cue. Unofficially, the iCDX will also work as a controller for Atomix Software's Virtual DJ or any other HID-compliant software package.
To enable, connect a USB cable to your PC, plug the other end into the iCDX's USB Slave port, press the SRC button and select USB-HID. Initially, the iCDX displays “PC no link,” which misled me into believing something was wrong. However, once you run the software and enable iCDX remote control, the link will activate. I tested software control with Numark Cue (a co-development with Numark and Atomix Software, developer of Virtual DJ).
Cue is Numark's professional DJ software that can mix and scratch audio and video files of multiple formats. There is no MP3 limitation here, since the iCDX simply functions as a control interface. Cue includes the typical DJ software features: two decks, bpm detection, automated mixing and playlists. More noteworthy, however, are its 12-bank sampler, built-in effects, VST plug-in support and video mixing.
Most of the iCDX's features translate logically to Cue; however, there are some subtle differences, such as the lack of the start/stop time setting and the functionality of the secondary looping buttons. Once you are familiar with Cue, you can easily use the iCDX to control everything you'd want to without having to touch your keyboard or mouse. You can even switch between decks by pressing the Eject button.
Latency was my primary concern, and I am happy to report that the responsiveness of the buttons and accuracy of the scratching was comparable to similar packages on the market.
The iCDX is an attractive jack-of-all-trades audio player that should nicely fill many items on the modern digital DJ's wish list. With its versatile range of audio sources, software controller option and well-conceived design, there aren't many major faults with this compact, solid package.
iCdx > $999
Pros: Versatile audio sources and data DVD support. Pitch, key-lock and key-shift features. PC software-controller integration. Well thought-out design and general manufacturing quality.
Cons: Slow load times and MP3-only support. Vibration when playing optical disks. Poor bpm-detection performance. Fader quality.