Pioneer XDJ-Aero review: a DJ controller that loves music, hates physical formats
Pioneer has enjoyed a fairly tight grip on the upper-end of the DJ market, but if you step out of the professional DJ booth, and into the bars and bedrooms, the competition starts to heat up. So when we heard about the XDJ-Aero and its curious new WiFi functionality, we were interested to see how this $1,399 controller would be received. That’s not to say the DJ mainstay doesn’t hold its ground in this busier market — it does — but as the far more frequent product release schedule will attest, the industry standard crown is still up for grabs. There’s the other issue of software to consider, also. Pioneer has remained fairly neutral so far, releasing controllers for the big two platforms already, with the paint barely dry on its latest addition.
The XDJ-Aero, however, hints at a new approach. One where you don’t need to choose your software gang colors to be involved. This isn’t the first bit of kit that lets you play direct from USB drives or skip the laptop, but it’s the first from Pioneer that clearly heads out in its own direction. Ditch the Traktor, wean yourself of Serato, even forget CDs and just get on with the mixing. That seems to be what the XDJ-Aero is about, but does it hold its own? We popped a few of our favorite ditties on to find out.
Pioneer XDJ-Aero review
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So, it breaks down like this. If you’ve ever used a modern, mid-range or above DJ controller, you’ll be on familiar ground. If you’ve used a Pioneer DJ product in the last six years, you’ll feel even more at home. If you’ve used any of the firm’s previous DJ software controllers, well, you can probably use this thing with your eyes closed. It’s fair to say, then, that in terms of broad layout, this is not breaking any molds – nor should it.
So, if this isn’t a CD turntable, is it just another software controller? Yes and no.
If, on the other hand, you’ve never set eyes or hands on such a machine, here’s the deal. The XDJ-Aero is a 25 x 11.4 x 2.5-inch slab of plastic and aluminum that houses two “deck” sections, one on either side of the central mixer. The deck sections roughly mirror most of the controls that you might find on a good CD turntable, and the mixer is a simple two-channel affair that lets you blend tracks between them. Around back is a selection of ports, including audio outputs (phono and TRS), and a pair of inputs for the mixer (more on this later) and microphone. You’ll also find the power connector there, along with a USB socket. The front edge is devoid of anything, save for a pair of headphone connectors (1/4-inch and 3.5mm respectively.)
So, if this isn’t a CD turntable, is it just another software controller? Yes and no. Like many of its predecessors and competitors — such as the DDJ-T1 or the Kontrol S2 — the XDJ-Aero can be used to control any MIDI-compatible DJ software (i.e., any that you would ever care about). As well as that software compatibility, you can also slot in a music-laden USB-drive, and play / mix songs from it directly (MP3, AAC, WAV, AIFF up to 24-bit / 44.1kHz). This is excellent news for those who are used to performing with CDs, or who prefer not to have a laptop in the equation, but it also means newcomers can begin mixing without committing to a particular software tribe.
This alone makes the XDJ-Aero one of the more well-rounded options format- and software-wise, but it also has a little party trick up its sleeve that should broaden its appeal even further: the hardware is WiFi-enabled and has companion apps that let you mix and DJ with music directly from your Android or iOS phone / tablet or regular Mac / PC. You can also use the same app to prepare tracks for more advanced DJ techniques, meaning — as the marketing material will have you believe — you can sketch out a set while skateboarding through your hood, before rolling up and rocking the party. In reality, it mainly means you can use the devices you likely already have with you as music sources / digital record boxes. Later on, we’ll see how that actually works.
Back to the bricks and mortar (well, plastic and metal) hardware, there’s pretty much everything here you need to mix your way up from beginner to gigging DJ. The deck sections consist of a motorless platter center stage, which is used for manually manipulating songs (similar to vinyl, but with other tricks) along with play / pause / cue buttons and a pitch control fader for adjusting speed. Working upwards from this you’ll find a small effects section (transform, flanger, echo and roll), an auto-loop control and some more detailed pitch control settings. The uppermost part contains a small LCD display for track and setting info as well as your music source controls. Plenty to get your head around, sure, but most will be familiar to anyone who’s had a play on anything remotely similar.
As for the mixer section, again, everything is as you might expect: a crossfader, two up-faders, along with a filter, three-band EQ kills, and a trim / gain control per channel. In fact, there’s little of note in this utilitarian area, though those low-to-high pass filter controls are definitely a welcome addition. Each side is otherwise identical, despite one asymmetrical blemish, coming in the form of a solitary USB port and two buttons on the left-hand side. This is where you stick your pen-drives, and the buttons let you record your mix directly to it, and safely remove it once you’re done.
Pioneer’s DJ gear might be known for being on the pricey side, but for what it’s worth, the gear is usually solidly built. The XDJ-Aero does nothing to undermine that rep — the metal top finish, solid response of the buttons and luxurious-feeling faders and caps leave you with no doubt that this is a solid bit of kit that should easily withstand the knocks and bumps that come with mobile gigging, or just regular enthusiastic use.
Features and software
As mentioned above, much of the XDJ-Aero’s functionality is the same as you might expect on any hardware controller at this price, so we’ll focus largely on the unique, or less common aspects of the device. One such new feature is “Jog Drum.” That’s the label that sits atop a button nestled at around 10 o’clock on the platter. The function is quite simple, but it might appeal to the new breed of finger-drumming digital performers. Essentially, it turns the jog dial into a large cue-button. Why bother? Well, the idea is that you can add drum / trigger sounds, samples or beats in seamless combination with scratch moves. A novelty, perhaps, but one with definite potential if used cleverly. Another feature that can work independently from, or in conjunction with Jog Drum is “Sample Launch.” As the name suggests, this allows you to quickly call up some pre-installed samples for rapid scratch interjections. The sounds on offer are fairly standard lasers and horn offerings. A bit of fun, for a while, perhaps.
The rest of the noteworthy functions involve the rekordbox companion app. This is free, and available for Mac, PC, Android and iOS. It’s the mobile versions that are likely of most interest, so that is what we will focus on here. We already wrote about the launch of the app, covering what it does, but that’s only part of the story. As mentioned above, it really starts to shine when used with the hardware directly as a virtual record box (hence the name, we guess). The hardware setup is pretty straightforward — under the utility settings is an access point name and a WPA2 key. Open the WiFi settings on your mobile device, find the SSID of the Pioneer and log on with the credentials. Now you can open the app on the same device, choose the “Load” option, browse the library on your device, choose a track and then tell it which deck to send it to. The song loads up on the XDJ-Aero almost instantly and is ready for prime time.
If you’re worried that this might introduce all sorts of potential latency issues, in our tests, a WiFi-loaded track was indistinguishable from one loaded via USB. This is with the devices in relatively close proximity (two or three meters). Of course, we need to know what happens if the host device (e.g., your friend and his phone) wanders off to the bar? So we loaded a track and sent the device off down the hall. The result? No interruption to the music. In fact, we tried again, loading a track, giving it fair chance to cache the whole thing (20 seconds max) before activating airplane mode, to make double sure, we then switched the iPad off completely. Again, no effect on the playing track. However, conversely, if you simply switch the device off (after giving it the same time to load) the music cuts completely.
Losing your tracks mid-set would be a disaster, so keep everything topped up and a USB stick on hand at all times.
So, that’s one of the potential pitfalls, but there are a few others that are worth mentioning while we’re on the topic. The next most obvious one is what happens if you load a tune from a phone and then receive a call? Based on our tests with a Galaxy Nexus, the short answer is… nothing. The track continued to play uninterrupted. We can’t promise the same will happen in all scenarios — in fact, the app itself will tell you to activate airplane mode first, and then re-enable WiFi, and if we were playing anywhere remotely public, we wouldn’t ignore that advice. The other main issue that we can think of is one familiar to anyone that uses their phone for any such extra activity (hot-spotting, for example) — battery life. Losing your tracks mid-set would be a disaster, so keep everything topped up and a USB stick on hand at all times!
One nice addition to the software element is that, while you can browse tracks on your phone or tablet and sling them over to the XDJ-Aero, you can actually use physical controls on the hardware (rotaries etc) to scroll through the applications menus going the other way. This means you could perch your tablet in front of you and treat it much like a screen, all the while navigating to your music and choosing tracks without touching it.
No amount of fancy tricks and flashing lights will compensate for a device that simply isn’t fit for purpose now will they? That’s why we spent hours slavishly hunched over the XDJ to find out if it cuts the mustard. In a word: yes. Pioneer’s long and established heritage in the post-vinyl DJ world is more than evident here. Buttons respond as you would hope, faders are smooth and tactile with no bounce back, and the jog dials are typically solid, with excellent resolution / response on the audio (i.e., it sounds just like your hand is on a record).
If you are new to the mixing game, you might at first be dazzled by the sheer number of dials and controls, but be assured, that after 20 to 30 minutes, even a novice will have the basic loading, fading and blending of tracks down. The beat-matching, however, might take a little longer to learn. Even then, the XDJ can help out, as a “sync” button (which will have purists rolling their eyes) will instantly set the track you want to mix at the right speed.
What does become apparent, before long, is the double-edged sword of having no external software running the show like much of the competition. On the one hand, you don’t need an expensive and delicate laptop in the equation, which saves space and makes this a more portable solution. And, well frankly, who wants to risk losing / breaking a perfectly good laptop?
On the flip side, as all the performance tools are determined by the physical hardware, you’re kind of stuck with what you’ve got. There are only four effects — much fewer than what Traktor users, for example, will be used to. Likewise, other extended and luxurious features that a software app might — literally — bring to the party, via updates and upgrades will basically not happen here. In five years’ time — barring some inventive firmware update — this fella is going to offer the same features and experience that it did today. But hey, maybe that’s something that appeals?
First up, this thing delivers fun by the bag load. Secondly, the fact it negates the need for a laptop will be a plus for many, if also a bane for many more. In a way, this feels like a step back from the increasingly complex requirements that software demands from its purpose-built DJ controllers. By being platform-agnostic (we’re not talking MIDI control here; literally, it needs no software,) you can cut out a lot of the fuss and noise that can often come with today’s more advanced programs. Sure, this is still strides ahead, feature-wise, than what a standard vinyl setup can offer, and as such, it occupies an interesting spot in the market.
Much as we might want to deny it, the vinyl days are gone. (Have you tried buying a whole set’s worth recently? It’s hard.) Digital has been around for a while, but even CDs and CDRs pose problems. Pioneer clearly thinks that there is a section of the DJ crowd that wants to go to the next logical step, and work from solid-state storage, be it a USB drive or the devices you already have in your pocket. While this might not be suitable for pros (even though you can already work this way with the latest CDJs) for many — mainly the enthusiast, and bar gig crowd — it’s a great, nay, ideal solution. The only caveat, as often is the case with Pioneer DJ equipment, is the price. With a suggested $1,399 MSRP, you’ll have to really test your dedication to your craft.
By James Trew