More and more DJs are trading in their turntables for laptops, lured by the advantages of digital audio -- searchable music catalogues, for example -- and the appeal of carrying less equipment around. The digital transition can be bittersweet, though, as DJs come to miss the feeling of scratching, cueing and matching tempos with tried-and-true analogue turntables and mixers.
Manufacturers have struggled to bridge this gap between analogue and digital DJing with a number of solutions, ranging from awkwardly retro-fitted turntables to flimsy USB-connected boxes. After reviewing our fair share of digital DJ tools over the past few years, we're happy to say that nothing approaches the sophisticated features and rock-solid design of the Numark NS7.
The NS7 package also includes professional DJ software, Serato Itch, that offers seamless integration with the NS7 hardware, and a USB-connected mixing console that doubles as a four-channel computer audio card. It's also in a price class of its own, retailing for a whopping £1,350 or thereabouts.
For DJs who are accustomed to managing a tabletop-sized flotilla of analogue DJ gear, the idea of stripping it all down to a laptop and a small DJ controller like the Vestax VCI-300, might seem too drastic. The NS7 meets you halfway between the extremes, measuring 76 by 10 by 38cm and weighing around 15.9kg. You're definitely not going to fit the NS7 into a laptop bag, unlike the VCI-300. In fact, given its weight and awkward size, it takes about two people to carry it comfortably.
The upshot of the NS7's size and weight is a spacious design that begs for abuse. Typically, these USB DJ controllers feel fragile and are constructed from lightweight plastic. The NS7, by comparison, is wrapped in metal from head to toe. The oversize, rubber buttons used for the main playback controls are similar to the ones we loved on the Numark iDJ2, and respond well to aggressive use.
Another design feature that makes the NS7 stand out from the crowd is a steel laptop stand connected to the back of the system. The stand can be quickly disconnected for easier transportation, or for peace of mind if you're uncomfortable suspending your laptop over the floor. The NS7's weight and stability is sufficient for us to trust that our laptop won't tumble off during an enthusiastic DJ set.
The NS7 offers all the standard features we like to see on a DJ controller, including high-grade audio outputs (gold-plated RCA or balanced XLR), line/mic input, serviceable faders, club-friendly illuminated controls and full-sized knobs that feel just like their analogue counterparts. Some unique features, such as touch strips that control playhead position, and oversize reverse switches for each deck, come as pleasant surprises.
Without question, though, the coolest features on the NS7 are the two motorised, 7-inch turntables. They do an outstanding job of emulating the control and feel of working with vinyl, except you don't need to worry about worn needles or skipping tone arms. Compared to systems like the Hercules DJ Console Rmx, VCI-300 or iDJ2, which use weighted-plastic jog wheels to approximate turntable-like control, the all-metal, direct-drive decks on the NS7 leave the competition in the dust.
You can't underestimate a product's look and feel when it comes to the fickle DJ market, but the crucial test of a USB DJ controller is responsiveness. Unlike analogue gear, where buttons and faders are intrinsically linked to their function, the features of a USB DJ controller rely on ones and zeros being sent back and forth from your laptop.
Fortunately, we have no complaints about performance latency with the NS7. During testing on both a 2007 Apple MacBook and an HP laptop (with a 2GHz Intel Pentium processor and running Windows XP), we experienced no noticeable lag time between the NS7 controls and the bundled Serato Itch software. We're also happy to report that the NS7 produced minimal audio latency over its integrated 24-bit, four-out, two-in soundcard. Audio buffer settings within the Serato Itch software allow a degree of control to compensate for any audio or performance delays you may experience on your computer.
Overall, the NS7's performance matches that of its highest-rated competitor, the VCI-300. But, when it comes to the responsiveness of each system's jog wheel/turntable mechanism, we prefer the solid, lively feel of the NS7's metal, motorised, vinyl-topped platters over the VCI-300's smaller jog wheels. Arguably, the NS7's motorised system introduces more parts that could fail but, in our experience, the trade-off is worth the added fun.
The Serato Itch software that comes bundled with the NS7 is the same program used by the VCI-300. Essentially, Itch is a competent, yet slightly stripped-down version of the popular Serato Scratch Live program, and it should appeal to DJs who prefer stability and simplicity over tricks and effects.
As far as music organisation goes, Itch makes it easy to collect all the music files from your computer or external hard drive (MP3, WAV, AAC and OGG are supported, but iTunes-protected AAC files are not), sort them using editable ID3 tags, search for songs by name and file them into virtual crates. Song tempos can be detected automatically by the software, entered directly or tapped in manually. One feature that caught our eye is that, after a song is over, Itch colour codes the title to prevent you from repeating it later and boring people to tears.
Compared with a program like Native Instruments' Traktor or PCDJ DEX, Serato Itch is extremely light on effects and advanced EQ settings. If you want to add filters, delays or flanger effects to your mix, you'll need to do it with outboard gear. Itch does offer a three-band EQ (0-6dB), a reverse/censor effect, and three independent cue-point loops per channel.
Our favourite feature of Serato Itch is the audio waveform view, which is coloured to distinguish high-frequency sounds (snare drums) from low-frequency sounds (bass drums), making it easier to visually align two beats to fall in sync. If more drastic measures are needed to beat-match a song transition, Serato's pitch-shift keys, auto-tempo controls and key lock should come in handy.
For better or worse, the Serato Itch software uses the NS7 hardware as a glorified copy-protection dongle, leaving the software crippled without the controller being attached to your computer. The upshot of this system is that there are no passwords to manage, and you can install the software on as many computers as you like without the hassle of online registration. The downside, of course, is that the software can't be used with any random MIDI controller, and you can't practice your mixes without having the NS7 hardware attached to your computer.
We can't say enough good things about the Numark NS7, but, then again, we didn't have to put down £1,350 to get our hands on a review unit. It's certainly an investment, but the extra expense is reflected in the uncompromised construction quality and professional performance.
Another advantage we have as reviewers is that we never have to move the NS7 around that much. Considering the reality of being a working DJ, and loading your equipment night after night, you'd be foolish to underestimate the hassle of lugging this thing around. The NS7 is a behemoth that dwarfs every other USB DJ controller we've seen. Granted, it takes up less space than a conventional turntable, mixer and record-crate set-up, but you won't be saving yourself any back strain.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet