Blimey! A "me-too" DJ controller this definitely isn't, and it feels that way when you unbox it too. It comes in a wide, deep, shallow box, and unpacked it's a relatively thin but spread-out metal-built beast that instantly screams "quality".
Bigger than the Traktor Kontrol S8, lighter than the Numark NS7III, smaller than the Pioneer DJ DDJ-RZ, and thinner than the Pioneer DJ XDJ-RX (its closest cousin out there in DJ land currently), the Denon DJ MCX8000 has a look of its own, while definitely sharing a lot of the pro-feel of some of the controllers I've just listed. Frankly, barring maybe the Numark NS7III, it feels the best built of the lot.
The unit is three things: First, a DJ controller with built-in screens for Serato DJ (four channels, top end features including DVS); second, a standalone USB DJ controller (ie no laptop required) that works with files analysed in Denon DJ's Engine software, and even with normal music files on a USB stick; and third a full standalone mixer with four channels, two fully featured mic inputs, and a good range of outputs.
Therefore, setting it up really depends upon how you want to play with it. If you want to use USB drives in one or both of its two USB slots, you introduce a USB stick with Engine-analysed music on it (or just a pile of files if you really want), and once you've plugged in your speakers, power, and your headphones, you're off.
If you want to use it with Serato DJ software, you plug in your laptop and launch the program, and again, you're ready. If you want to add external turntables or CDJs, either for spinning actual vinyl / CDs directly or using them with timecode for Serato DVS, you'll plug those into the back too.
If you want to use it in all three ways, do the lot! One of the unit's strengths is its ability to switch seamlessly among your sources.
One of the selling points of the MCX8000 is that you can play without a laptop, and get lots of the benefits of controller DJing, such as waveforms, cue points, beatgridding and so on. The way this works is that you use a special piece of software on your laptop from Denon, called "Engine", to do the analysis ahead of time on your library, much like Pioneer DJ's Rekordbox library management software.
You can sort out playlists, analyse your songs for key and BPM, add cue points, and so on before finally exporting them onto a USB drive. You then plug that drive into the MCX8000, and the screens and controls come to life. It's designed to feel like a controller, but without the need for a laptop.
You can grab the software from Denon's site and once installed, it's easy to drag music into Engine's library. Some users are reporting inaccurate beatgridding (it worked fine for me in a cursory test), it crashed on me once, and it's not as refined as Pioneer's Rekordbox that does a similar job within that ecosystem, but I saw nothing that screamed "deal breaker". (Denon DJ has however just released an update to Engine 1.5 here, that it says addresses various issues and adds in some new features - we'll cover this in our separate Engine tutorial coming soon.)
Nicely, you can also import your Serato DJ collection too, for easy migration from one to the other, or simply to give yourself the best of both worlds if you so wish.
With Engine via USB
Music played from USB via Engine only works across two of the unit's four channels. To some this may be a deal breaker, but it's not a huge hindrance for the majority of DJs, I'd wager: most DJs wouldn't dream of buying a mixer or controller with under four channels for the versatility that adds, but don't tend to DJ with more than two as a rule.
Once you introduce a USB and switch to Engine using the three-way switches above the two channels it works with, you can open the library and view it on a screen, using the rotary to select tracks, and the buttons to cycle playlists and sort by BPM, album, key, artist, title and so on. It's never going to feel as good as scrolling through a library on a laptop, but the full-colour, responsive screens make it easy enough, and there's a useful alphabet search too, where you hold "shift" and turn the library encoder to jump to any letter of the alphabet.
It would be good to see some kind of recommendation feature built in here, based on compatible keys and BPMs; that would be a great counter for the limited screen size and search options. One thing you can do is select a BPM range and then search tracks within certain BPM ranges. One click, and the track chosen loads onto the deck.
There are two USB slots, and it's easy to switch between them, so you can have two DJs playing from their own collections with ease at the same time.
The display then shows you a three-colour zoomable waveform, a full track waveform, and the track info. It feels very much like laptop displays, which is a good thing, and indeed, if you imagine the existing "laptop DJ controller plus screens" devices out there (such as the Numark NV, Traktor Kontrol S8, and add-on Numark Dashboard screens), you'll be on the money: it's that, minus the laptop completely.
One difference between this and the Pioneer XDJ-RX, another controller that has the same set of use cases (albeit with lesser ambitions than the MCX8000) is that the Pioneer has one larger screen in the centre of the unit, rather than two smaller screens as here. Whether you prefer one or the other would be personal preference, although I like parallel waveforms (or at least, some kind of phase metering for visual beat sync); you miss that here. Other than that, using Engine is a great experience. It's not quite up there with Rekordbox DJ on a Pioneer Nexus 2 system, but then again, you can buy five of these units for one of those set-ups!
What you do get on the unit is three built-in post-fader FX (phaser, echo and noise), plus a filter (big knob under channel EQs, naturally), plus the gamut of hot cues, slicer, loop roll and so on; all of these work with Engine, and sound great. It really does feel very much like using a controller with a laptop.
With Serato DJ
This is a fully fledged Serato DJ controller, that has everything you could imagine and a bit more besides. Full four deck control, DVS, velocity sensitive performance pads with all the features... it's all here. Denon DJ has also added a feature I haven't seen elsewhere that works with Serato DJ's Pitch 'n Time plugin; when you have that installed, you can activate a kind of tone play mode, where you can "play" from a set cue point using the pads as musical notes that go up and down, so the pads can dynamically pitch shift from the cue point as you hit them. When used with Slip mode, it's a lot of fun - and I mean a lot of fun: I took the synth stab from Inner City's "Big Life" and lost an hour of my life I won't be getting back... great feature.
(Serato DJ Pitch 'n Time expansion is included: Once you register the MCX8000 to your user profile on the Denon DJ site, you will receive a voucher code.)
The screens work exactly as you might expect, especially if you've seen the Numark NV's Serato DJ implementation on that controller's screens. You can switch from decks to library to zoomable waveforms, and it's broadly comparable with the Engine displays. When using with Serato (you switch the channels you want to use to "PC", by the way, on the three-way switch), the FX control Serato's software FX instead, switching out the built-in hardware FX for that channel or channels.
As the unit is happy with you using Serato DJ and Engine at the same time, you can happily have say two Serato internal or DVS decks and two Engine decks, or any combination thereof. Of course, this would make switching DJs easy too, or back to back across two different systems (three, if you also had a DJ playing "real" records or CDs). As far as limitations go, the only thing that won't work is using the "sync" button to try and sync a Serato deck to an Engine deck. A nice touch is an audio or audio/video switch, so if you have the Serato Video plugin, you can mix the two together if you wish.
With external sources
As stated, this is also a full standalone mixer. You get four line inputs, two switchable to phono, which can easily be switched in and out on the fly. So you could have CDJs, record decks, and backup sources (iPad, iPhone etc), plus vocalists, a DJ microphone, MCs etc via the two mic channels.
The two mic channels are routed straight to master out, but they have two-band EQ, hardware echo (why not reverb, though, guys?) and talkover. In other words, they're everything you'd need even in demanding mobile DJ situations.
The jogwheels are capacitive with scratch behaviour on the top and nudge at the edges. They have LEDs in bright blue around the edges that rotate to indicate a track is playing, with one LED "knocked out" showing platter position. You can reverse this behaviour if it's too garish for you (ie you can have only one LED lit at all); this may be a good idea to show you visually whether you're on decks 1 and 2 or 3 and 4, for instance, as each deck can be set independently. You can also alter the brightness of the unit's lighting, among other tweaks, in a utility menu.
There's a full set of controller features: Key sync as well as beat sync; auto loop and manual loop, a needle drop strip (a bit too easy to hit by mistake in Serato until you spot the tickbox in Serato's preferences that lets you add a failsafe, but with a default failsafe implementation in Engine); slip mode; censor/reverse; vinyl mode; beatgrid adjust; 10-bar per-channel metering and seven-bar master; plus the aforementioned quality velocity-sensitive RGB pads, controlling variously cues, cue loop, Serato Flip, loop rolls, slicer and sampler. For mobile DJs who like this kind of stuff there are fader start settings, and pitch bend buttons too.
Speaking of mobile DJs, the outputs are flexible too: you get RCA and XLR master outputs and XLR booth out, and the booth has two-band EQ as well as a volume control. I'd have liked to have seen a Rec Out; having an output independent of the Master and Booth volumes would have been a great addition to a controller that can blend so many disparate sources, for recording such multi-source sets. I did like the addition of a mono/stereo switch though - great for installations where speakers fill in areas, rather than provide a stereo soundscape (ie practically all public venues).
Feel and sound quality
In short, it's a pleasure to DJ on and sounds great. The metering allows you to be sure you're sending a sweet, clear signal through to unit, and the specs on paper show Denon DJ isn't skimping on the insides, either. The full metal jacket and all the controls assure you from the off of the quality, and the size of the playing surface makes sure that the whole thing feels like grown-up gear to play on, with none of the cramped feeling of smaller controllers. (One of the most beloved controllers among mobile DJs was the Denon DJ MC6000 - but boy did that have a cramped surface!)
I can't overemphasise the feeling of possibility you get when playing with this. Engine is a revelation on the same way as Rekordbox DJ on Pioneer's somewhat rival system the XDJ-RX is a revelation; but being able to switch to Serato in the same DJ set is just crazy! And of course having Serato DVS, plus all external sources, and all the high-end features that mean this unit is not going to be out of its depth in any sort of public performance. It is a DJ controller on cutting edge steroids, have no doubt about that.
So who's it for? Mobile DJs will love this - it ticks all the boxes and then loads more, frankly (especially when cased up - in the video below we have it in the Magma Bags MCX8000 case). Controllerists likewise will look at this and see a fantastic Serato DJ controller, with built-in redundancy (USB backup is just a switch away), and all the versatility you could possibly want with regards to adding DVS, playing with other DJs and so on. There are no Traktor mappings as we speak, but Traktor is becoming a real closed ecosystem so not too surprising, although I imagine we'll see Virtual DJ available for this soon enough.
And Denon fans, of which there are many, will breathe a big, happy sigh of relief that the Denon philosophy of innovation with high quality at top of mind is still alive, hopefully backed by more stability and resources going forward.
Another, new breed of DJ may well want to get involved here, though, too: many will see the possibility offered by Engine, and simply want to be part of it as a new platform (the software isn't actually new, but it's back in active development after a slow start).
And one thing we haven't mentioned since the hero list at the start is the Ethernet port on the back, designed to interface with lighting, visuals and pyrotechnics! The reason we've left this out of the review is that this is "forthcoming", but if this turns into a clever way of triggering visuals using Engine to set visual cues, for instance, or trigger light shows, then that whole "festival stage spectacle" could soon be coming to a dancefloor near you, with modern, affordable DJ gear and lights driving it forward.