The Pioneer DDJ-SB is an entry level unit aimed at beginners and home DJs who are looking for a budget controller with some of the performance capabilities of the company’s former flagship model the DDJ-SX, whose top tier status has been transferred recently to the newly released DDJ-SZ. At under US$250 and with Serato DJ compatibility (it comes with Serato DJ Intro, though, which is an upgradable, cut-down version of the software), it looks like a great deal on paper. But how does it perform? We take a good look in this review.
The DDJ-SB has a compact, lightweight form factor that makes it easy to set on a tabletop and quick to store, but I reckon DJs will want to take this along with them for gigs, too. It’s quite light, weighing in at a little under five pounds, and the case is made entirely of black plastic: You’ll want to get a bag for this if you’ll be taking it around for shows to keep it safe. The surface may look like brushed aluminum, but it’s not.
The first thing that caught my attention are the two large jogwheels on either side of the deck, and while they may resemble the ones on a DDJ-SX, they do lack the LED track position ring in the middle, so you won’t get any visual feedback from them. With that said, they appear to be fairly solid and chunky, elevating a few inches above the controller’s surface and offering a bit of resistance when you scratch with them.
Below the wheels are eight pads that may seem identical at first, leading you to expect that they all function the same, but they’re actually split into two rows: The top row consists of four pads whose purpose are dependent upon which of the function buttons above them are selected. You can set them to be Hot Cues, controls for Auto Loop, controls for Manual Loop, or as pads for Serato DJ’s SP6 sample player. The bottom row of pads are your transport controls: Play, Cue, Sync and a Shift button that, when held down, lets you access an extra layer of control on the DDJ-SB.
Above the jogs is the FX portion of the controller, with three buttons for enabling/disabling the FX you’ve chosen in Serato DJ, and a knob that, by default, controls the Wet/Dry amount of all three parameters simultaneously. It doesn’t give you as much tweakability as the DDJ-SX or SR, but it’s better than not having any knob at all to control your FX.
The mixer section has two volume faders and a crossfader, as well as the usual high, mid and low EQ controls. Below them is a filter knob, which is a welcome thing at this price range, although it’s there at the expense of a gain knob which would let you manually adjust your track’s gain without having to rely on Serato DJ to do it for you. Noticeably absent are any level metres to measure your output volume.
The DDJ-SB comes with a new Filter Fade function. It basically engages a high pass filter (ie removes the lows) and automates any volume changes when you use the crossfader to fade in from one track to another. Do note that Filter Fade is linked to your crossfader, so you’re going to have to use the crossfader when you mix two tracks together as opposed to using the upfaders if you want to take advantage of this function.
At the top of the unit you’ll find a Browse knob that you can use to scroll through your Serato DJ crates, and buttons on either side of it to load the selected track onto the left or right virtual deck.
There are two headphone outputs on the side of the unit, which are great if you’re using headphones with 1/8” jacks or you’ve forgotten to pack your 1/4” standard adapter. It also features a microphone input if you want to do a bit of MCing while you’re at it.
There is only one pair of master outputs, and they’re RCA jacks, meaning they’re unbalanced connections. There are no 1/4” jack outputs and no booth monitor outputs, so you’d best make sure that the sound system you’re connecting to has the requisite inputs for it. We recommend taking along a set of RCA to 1/4” cables and adapters just in case you find yourself in a situation where the sound guys can’t accommodate you!
It’s possible to use the DDJ-SB straight out of the box, thanks to its tight integration with Serato DJ, although be reminded that it comes with Serato DJ Intro, which is a pared down version of the software (you can try the full version of Serato DJ for 14 days, after which you can purchase the full version for US$129). Going through your Serato crates is a breeze thanks to the Browse knob, and loading them is equally easy: Just press the button on the left if you want to load it in Deck A, and the one on the right for Deck B.
The jogwheels on the DDJ-SB are large, chunky, and have a bit of "fight" in them when you move them around. These are in contrast to what you’d find on a Traktor Kontrol S2/S4, and personally I prefer these because they feel more like CDJs instead of a shrunken jogwheel. They are also very responsive, and are a joy to use when scratching. For some, jogs make or break a controller purchase, so you’ll definitely want to get your hands on these first before trying out another budget controller: For the money, they’re good!
You can scratch with these jogs or use them to move around your track. Spinning the side of the jogwheel results in a pitch bend for beat matching, much like you would do on a CDJ deck. Holding down the shift button and spinning the jogwheel lets you move through the track faster, just like you would when you use the Needle Search function in some Pioneer gear.
The knobs on the DDJ-SB are made of a hard plastic, but they don’t feel flimsy at all. Cutting lows and using the filter knobs feel alright, and they all have centre detents so you know when you’re at precisely 12 o’clock when twiddling them. The volume faders aren’t the slickest out there and the crossfader isn't as loose as some DJs would want them to be when scratching, but that’s fine considering you’re parting with less than US$250 for this unit.
The Filter Fade function is a rather polarising feature: Either you’ll enjoy using it once in a while or you’ll completely ignore it. When engaged, Filter Fade applies a high pass filter to the track currently playing, and it increases the range and amount of the filter as you move the crossfader onto the other deck. It also smoothens any volume changes as this happens, so what you get is a nice, clean sounding fade onto the next track. When the crossfader reaches the middle and both tracks are playing, the lows of both are filtered equally, and the closer the crossfader is to the other deck, the more bass is re-introduced into the next track by automatically decreasing the filter amount of the next song. Indeed, to do all of this simultaneously (filtering, volume adjustments and crossfading) you’d need three hands, so in this respect Filter Fade makes things easier for you.
What makes Filter Fade a bit of an extra feature as opposed to a necessary one is that it’s tied to the unit’s crossfader, meaning if you DJ using volume faders up and down (crossfader in the middle), you’ll always have the lows of both tracks filtered out because it’s meant to be used when you mix with the crossfader from left to right. Another thing is that DJs don’t always mix or blend two tracks using filters: Sometimes you’d want to remove the mids, sometimes the highs, etc. Filter Fade, then, becomes a bit one-dimensional when you look at it from this perspective.
The performance pads on the DDJ-SB are different from the ones on the SX, SR and SZ. These are backlit pads that don’t change colour, plus the pads that you can use for performance functions are restricted to the ones on the top row. The bottom row is reserved exclusively for transport controls, so don’t expect to access all eight cue points when using the Hot Cue function without having to hit the Shift button. This is similar to the way they work on the Mixtrack Pro 2.
With that said, they feel more like big, soft buttons with a long travel rather than thick, solid rubber pads. You can still do your cue point juggling with them, but don’t expect any velocity-sensitive features or ultra-responsive, touch-sensitive dynamics here: They’re very basic, and they’re fine for setting loop points and executing rolls. To be honest, this is the unit’s biggest letdown, but again I find it hard to complain given that you’re getting an excellent feature set that would be hard to come by at this price range just a few years back.
There are three buttons in the FX section of the controller, which let you enable or disable a given effect or effect parameter in Serato DJ. The Level knob to the right of the buttons let you set the Wet/Dry mix level of the FX, although as I’ve mentioned it would really be nice to be able to adjust each effect’s level individually. You can still do this in the software with your mouse if you want to, but I’d recommend using effects and effect combinations that work well with just one knob.
The Pioneer DDJ-SB is a good controller both for DJs starting out and those who want a portable solution that they can take to a party. It certainly has enough functionality on the surface for a conventional gig, although controllerists and FX-centric DJs might be left wanting more in terms of extra control over parameters and other bells and whistles. The crossfader isn't replaceable, so don't look into dropping an Innofader into this one as you would a Kontrol S2 or S4. In fact, don't expect to be able to upgrade anything in this unit as everything's built "as is", and the only thing you could probable change would be the caps of the knobs.
Of course, one can't expect to have mid and top-tier features on an entry level controller, and with that said, it really is a fantastic value for what you're paying: The size and quality of the jogwheels alone give some controllers above its price range a run for its money, and it certainly helps that the device itself looks like a DJ tool instead of some flashy plastic toy for wannabes.
Having taken the unit out to both private poolside parties and large-scale beach festivals this summer, I can certainly vouch for its reliability in a scenario that exposes the DDJ-SB to the elements. While I did have it stored in a bag when not in use (all your gear should have some form of protection when you take it out of your bedroom, in my opinion), it worked just fine under the influence of sun, sea and surf breeze. A quick dusting after the performance, and it's ready to be slipped back again in its bag for transport. I've had no problems with it thus far (had it for close to three months already), and don't see it getting into any sort of trouble, lest I take it on as extreme a performance setting as, say, an active volcano's crater!