The best DJ controllers under £250
For recording mixes at home, learning to DJ, live streaming or scratching the itch of playing your favourite tunes back to back, affordable controllers have never been as capable as they are in 2021. We break down our five favourite controllers under £250 and what you need to know when buying one
Buying your first controller can be overwhelming. Not only is there an endless amount of choice, many of which look almost identical to each other, there’s also the head-scratching decision of which controllers control which software, and which is the right one for you?
The good news is: if you’re just starting out, chances are that £250 is going to be enough to get you a competent controller that can teach you the fundamentals of DJing and give you enough practice skills to eventually step up your game to something more professional. Or, if you’re already playing on the bar and club circuit but have spent the past 18 months without access to DJ equipment you might want to get a simple set-up at home to practice on, record mixes or just scratch the itch of playing your favourite tunes back to back.
Whatever the situation you find yourself in, whether you’re new to DJing or need something affordable for home use, you’re in luck: it’s never been a better time to buy an affordable DJ controller.
Before you read on, there are a few things you need to know. We’re not focusing on any one piece of software and have chosen what we think are the best options for each major platform, as well as flexible controllers that work with more than one.
Some of the controllers mentioned come with full versions of software, others come with cutdown versions so that could be a key part of your decision if £250 is your absolute max budget. Subtracting the cost of the full version can often make a good deal even better. On the flip side, if you have to fork out extra for a pro version upgrade, it needs to be factored into your budget.
While they are similar in basic features — mostly two jogs, two channels, three-band EQ and performance pads — they all have at least one USP that makes them worthy of this list. Whichever one appeals to you will depend on how you want to express yourself as a DJ, be it through adding loops and samples, learning the fundamentals of mixing and scratching, starting your industry-standard route to CDJ3000s through rekordbox, or a combination of all three.
Let’s dive in.
One of the cheapest entry points into the Pioneer DJ world, the DDJ-400 is the best way to start your journey with the industry-standard kit. Yes, there’s a cheaper DDJ-200, but it’s very basic and doesn’t have the same FX control and looping. The 200 is also designed to work with Pioneer DJ’s own app WeDJ, streaming from Beatport LINK, SoundCloud and more. If you’re an ultra beginner and budgets are tight, have a look at the 200 but we’d recommend stretching for the 400 if you want something that will remain relevant for longer as you hone and develop your skills.
It features two-channel controls only, with a three-band EQ per channel, a dedicated dual-pass filter — left is low-pass, right is high-pass — gain control and two faders. There’s also LED metering so you can see when you’re hitting the red.
Round back you’ve got a simple RCA master output — that’s red and white cables — so you can’t plug it straight into a sound system but you could connect monitor speakers or hook it up to a DJ mixer. There’s a quarter-inch (guitar lead size) input for mics too so you can shout out during live streams and a USB port for power and connecting to your computer, and that’s it.
On cheaper controllers, one thing you’ll usually sacrifice on is the quality of the jog wheels. But unless you’re looking to scratch and become a turntablist — in which case look at some of the other controllers on this list — they’re going to be fine for pushing and pulling the tracks in and out of sync, and some very basic novelty scratching if that’s your game. It won’t have the torque of the CDJ-3000 but it’s very usable for beginners.
The eight pads per deck also have up to eight modes giving them 64 potential control options — a huge amount for something at this price point. They feel pretty sturdy too, and even if you’re just using them for Hot Cues and looping, they’re a welcome addition. They can, of course, be used to trigger FX, samples, jump forward and backwards in the track by certain bar numbers, and more. Speaking of FX, the 400 ports the same system as the flagship DJM range, using a single button and dry/wet knob to activate and control FX, and you can assign them to channel 1, 2 and master with the flip switch. It’s another aspect of the Pioneer DJ standard that you can get used to before you play out in front of a crowd.
Of course, a hardware controller is nothing without useful software, and while rekordbox dj isn’t hugely revolutionary, its best feature is that it integrates with your own rekordbox library. That means that you are learning and playing on the same platform that you’ll use to manage your music, cue points, loops, labelling etc if you move to CDJs. It’ll also mean that your whole library is already analysed for when you export it to a USB or SD card. If your ultimate goal is to play on CDJs — and, at the time of writing, they are the industry standard — then it just doesn’t make sense to practice, learn, organise and prepare in another software than rekordbox and rekordbox dj.
Two words: jog wheels. The jogs on the Mixtrack are absolutely the best jog wheels you can get at this price point. They’re weighted really nicely and feel extremely solid and professional. They’re also slightly bigger than most controllers at this price range, at six inches, meaning that you’re getting a far more realistic feel than anything else on the market. So it’s important to point out early: if jog wheel quality is important to you, the Mixtrack is probably the controller you’ll want to buy.
But there’s more to this Serato controller than the jogs. The rest of the unit manages to pack a lot into a small, portable frame, including eight performance pads with four modes, six FX buttons, including two FX levers, dual-pass filter knobs per channel, deck control for C and D so you can control four decks from a two-channel controller, an on-jog screen with bpm, timing and more info and a looping button with double and halve buttons. Another excellent touch is the extra-long pitch fader, which allows you to dial in far more accurate pitch changes and adjustments, another feature you’re less likely to see on cheaper controllers.
With the excellent jogs and long-throw pitch faders, the Mixtrack is aimed at those who actually want to master traditional mixing techniques. Given Numark’s own history with turntablists and turntables, that’s not a surprise. To further that notion, there’s also pitch bend buttons that allow you to temporarily shift the tempo faster or slower while holding the appropriate button, another thing you rarely see on controllers of this type.
The fact that this is a Serato controller — software that’s always been the calling card of hip-hop, RnB and more tempo-diverse genres than house and techno — once again proves that, if the fundamentals of DJing are more important to you than more modern bells and whistles, or if your background is in vinyl mixing and you want to start on something digital, this controller is for you. That doesn’t mean it’s not got the modern bells and whistles. As we mentioned, it’s got FX, looping, filters, three-band EQ and the on-jog display on top those excellent jogs and the performance pads, which give you access to software specific functions like samplers, fader cuts that are essentially preset crossfader movements, auto loop lengths and hot cues.
Round back it’s a similar affair to the DDJ-400 — one RCA output, a microphone input and a USB port for power and computer communication. Round front is where you can plug in your headphones.
Software-wise is the only side where the Mixtrack is let down — it only comes with Serato Lite rather than Serato Pro. What’s the difference? Among other things, there’s no record mode so you can’t record mixes, there’s less FX and you can’t create playlists! Quite a significant issue if you’re keen to start building up your collection. But Lite does offer support for streaming platforms like TiDAL and Beatport Link, so you could build up your collection there, at an extra cost. It’s $99 to upgrade to Serato DJ Pro so it’s not gonna break the bank if you find Serato is for you.
Ultimately, the Mixtrack is a fantastic option for Serato users, those who are interested in learning to mix without Sync, entry-level DJs who want to learn to scratch and current vinyl DJs who are looking for a cheap and more accurate entry into digital. It also manages to pack a lot into a small frame meaning it’s still portable, despite those pro-feeling jogs. An excellent controller.
There was a time when Native Instruments’ Traktor Pro was the go-to pro-end DJing platform in Europe. Hip-hop DJs in the US used Serato and house and techno DJs across the pond stuck with NI’s long-running software, and the two ruled the hard drives of digital DJs for almost a decade. Things have changed as rekordbox dj shoved its way into the market, alongside pro improvements from software VirtualDJ and Serato’s evolution into an all-rounded solution rather than one that relied on specific hardware.
Traktor Pro has been left somewhat dormant. Its last major update in 2018 was the first in seven years, and it didn’t do a huge amount to drag some of its userbase back to the software. While they tweaked the sound quality, the FX and the GUI, they failed to add any futuristic updates such as streaming from SoundCloud, TiDAL or Beatport Link, which nearly all of their competitors now support. They did, however, introduce an even simpler entry-level app called Traktor DJ 2 on both iOS and macOS, a cut-down version aimed at beginners, which the new S2 also works with.
Nevertheless, Traktor was king for a reason and it’s still one of the most flexible and intuitive DJ software, especially for loop-based genres like house and techno. Its ability to import loops and one-shots to its innovative Remix Decks to play alongside full tracks give it an extra performance edge. Its also got excellent quality FX, filters and general sound. If you’re interested in running drum loops, hits and samples in your sets and high-quality sound is a priority, read on.
Alongside the launch of Traktor Pro 3 came an update to their popular Kontrol S range of controllers, and the S2 MKIII is a brilliant example of software and hardware in perfect harmony. Featuring two jogs, two faders, three-band EQ per channel, eight performance pads per channel with two modes — Samples and Hotcue — and an FX section with one knob per channel and four effect options. It’s a fairly eloquent way of squeezing in a lot of control to a small space, similar to the Pioneer DJ controller. Traktor’s effects are by far the best FX in any DJ software, and you do get the full version of Traktor Pro 3 with the controller, so that’s £89 added to the value of the hardware, plus it gives you a nice upgrade path as it’s a very comprehensive and versatile piece of software.
One interesting aspect of the S2 is it has a USB A port at the back, that’s the same as the USB port you’d find on a laptop or computer. That means you can plug an iPad straight into the device and control Traktor DJ on the iPad without a computer. While Traktor DJ the app is fairly basic, it’s another bonus and stretches the cost of the controller further.
Another unique aspect of the S2 is the reverse and flux modes — reverse lets you temporarily play a track backwards, while keeping its original position, and flux means the track will keep playing underneath any changes you make to the playhead, i.e. scratching, hot cues etc, and will jump back to where it would have been once you let go. This is the same as Slip mode on a CDJ and is handy for adding some performance techniques without losing your position in the track.
The S2 is a fairly simple piece of kit — it’s built well, despite being plastic, it’s very sturdy, and the jogs feel solid. What you’re really buying is your first entry into the Traktor world — it’s still a very impressive software despite slowing down in recent years. Like we said before, for house and techno DJs who want to add loops, remix on the fly, trigger samples and add some of the more pro-sounding FX you can get, Traktor is by far the best software option. The S2 does also work with VirtualDJ if you want to expand beyond Traktor and take advantage of streaming options from Beatport and TiDAL, but at an extra cost.
Hercules are well known for their entry-level controllers and DJ hardware. You’re more likely to spot their kit on Amazon rather than in a professional booth, but all the same, they’ve become a super popular DJ brand for a reason. They’ve been able to fill in that gap between casual users who have an interest in DJing and those on a budget, looking for somewhere to start their DJ journey. While some of their cheaper products wouldn’t be suitable for anyone taking DJing more seriously, their InPulse range has managed to bridge the gap between amatuer and pro, offering similar features to the other controllers in this article. The one bonus? They’re not tied to any software so can be used with multiple DJ platforms, if you’re not sure which one’s for you.
The flagship of their InPulse range is the 500, a controller we profiled earlier this year. Along with a range of standard features — two six-inch jogs, three-band EQ per channel, dedicated filter and FX knob for each channel, an auxiliary input and eight performance pads on each side, with cue, loop, slicer and sampler modes — it’s also built really nicely with a steel faceplate and solid buttons and knobs.
It features retractable legs to elevate it to a more comfortable level and coloured LEDs underneath to create a vibe, and round back there’s a more pro quarter-inch output as well as the usual RCA (red and white).
One of the more unique features is a Beat Align LED below each jog wheel that shows when a track is ‘in sync’ and when it’s not, and whether you need to push the jog back or pull it forward, via a red LED arrow. It’s a really useful tool for those learning to mix and aren’t interested in the sync button. The jogs themselves also feel really responsive and professional. It’s also got similar controls to the MixTrack when it comes to FX, with four buttons and one knob per channel for easy, compact access.
As we said InPulse and Hercules generally are designed to work with any software. The good thing about that is it’s flexible and you can move around as your DJing skills progress or as you discover new features in other software. The bad thing is, the hardware isn’t integrated as well with any and instead aims to be a jack of all trades, rather than mimic what you might see on the screen. So it depends on what’s more important to you — familiarity and ease of use or flexibility and customisation.
The InPulse comes bundled with Serato Lite, which as we mentioned before, is adequate for basic use but the lack of playlisting and limited effects aren’t ideal. It also comes bundled with Hercules’s own DJUCED software which although might not be a popular choice, offers quite a few interesting features like mix Assistant, that helps you choose a track based on key, bpm and energy of what’s playing.
Hercules InPulse 500 is definitely a great choice if you want a controller to do multiple things across multiple software. If you’re not sure what programme to use yet, it’s a great choice for its standardised layout, good build quality and better in and out options than most at this price. It’s also sturdy enough to be taken on the road and used at mobile DJ events like weddings, bars or events.
However, if you’re not super technical and you just want to plug and play your set-up, you might want to look at something that’s designed to mimic one software, like the DDJ-400 or the MixTrack.
Roland might not be the first name on the list when it comes to DJ equipment, but recently they’ve been slowly building up a collection of quality controllers for Serato. And given their heritage as drum machine and synthesizer legends, they’ve integrated some fresh and funky features into their DJ controllers, taken from their recent TR drum machine range.
The DJ-202 is one of their most affordable controllers and a cut-down version of their DJ-808 and 505 units for Serato Lite. It features all the usual things you’d expect from an entry-level controller — two channels with volume faders, three-band EQ, dual-pass filter per channel, a single browse knob to cycle through tracks and a Load left and right to load them into each deck, eight performance pads with multiple modes which we’ll come back to and FX controls up top.
What makes this controller stand out from the others is the built-in sequencer and drum machine sounds. That means you can play the legendary 808 drum sounds directly from the controller, and create drum patterns to play alongside your tracks. Those patterns will then be automatically sync’d to the track you’re playing, even if you manually change the tempo. It’s a really fun way to quickly add some spice to your performance, even if you just wanted to add some open hi-hats or extra percussion. You could of course have a full drum pattern rolling at all times to make your transition smoother. It doesn’t have to be an 808 either — Roland updated the range to add 606, 707 and 909 sounds, and you can even sequence any sample that you load onto Serato — you could have your own drum sounds in your DJ kit. It’s a little complex to set up so you might need the manual to hand.
It’s not something everyone’s gonna be interested in, but like Traktor, having extra performance options to help you stand out, or if you’re a producer moving into DJing it might be more comfortable with programming and samples in your sets, it’s a great option with some great sounds.
It’d all be for nothing if the build quality wasn't right and luckily the quality on show here is excellent. The jogs are super high quality, nicely weighted and responsive for scratching. Usefully, their sensitivity can also be adjusted in the settings. Having the pitch fader up top is a little strange but apart from that, this leftfield controller is perfect for Serato users who wanna get a bit creative but also expect their kit to last while lugging it around on the road. The 202 also features an old school MIDI DIN output top hook up to any older kit to sequence or control. A nice touch.
Serato DJ Lite is the software that’s bundled so again, you may have to drop another $99 to go full version, but it will also work with VirtualDJ and Algoriddim djay, so there’s a bit of flexibility before you find your feet.
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