It was roughly a year ago that I kicked the tires on the then-new DJ-808 controller, Roland’s first foray into the DJ market. Then, late in 2017, Roland rolled out a pair of new controllers that expand its DJ-market footprint: the DJ-505 and the DJ-202.
As I recall writing in another review recently, it does appear that the DJ-gear market splits nicely into three predictable tiers: 1. The high-end, for globetrotting DJ stars (or those who aspire to be), or for standard equipment in clubs; 2. The low-end, for bedroom DJs and others who are just starting out; and, 3. The middle — where many working DJs (and those on the rise) can find a good balance between cost and capability.
To be sure, those are blurry distinctions at best, but the point is that things do tend to stratify into three levels, wherever and however you draw the boundaries, and Roland has acknowledged as much with these two new additions.
The Basics: To refresh on last year’s DJ-808 review, I was pretty impressed with the unit. (You can, of course, find the full review, which ran in the December 2016 issue, on djtimes.com.) It’s a sweet, Serato-centric controller with an onboard drum machine and voice processor, joined up with excellent interoperability to sync DJ performances in various ways with other gear or co-performers. But at roughly $1,300 street price, it’s not exactly the sort of controller whereupon the average, aspiring teen DJ is likely cut his or her teeth.
Price-wise, the new DJ-505 gets a little closer. For about $700 street price, the DJ-505 offers (as we’ll see) a lot of capability for a substantially lower barrier to entry. And now, at the low end, Roland offers the DJ-202 at roughly $300 on the street.
As one would logically expect, Roland has stripped out some of the capabilities of the DJ-808 to make the 505, and stripped some stuff from the 505 to make the 202. The importance of what’s stripped out is probably dependent on your use case, but Roland has managed to keep a lot of value in the DJ-505, while offering it for about half the price of the 808.
Set-up & Use: Getting up and running with either of the two Roland controllers that are the subject of this review involves first downloading and installing the appropriate drivers — a simple thing, but one that escaped me initially. Without the drivers installed, Serato DJ was able to detect the controllers, but couldn’t actually activate them for use. Once I figured out that drivers were needed, it was a simple matter to install them, and Serato DJ immediately recognized and functioned with the controllers afterward.
In any case, once past that little hiccup, the DJ-505 and -202 worked like any other Serato-based controllers; just plug them in, turn them on, fire up Serato DJ, and you’re off to the races. As always, existing users may need to update their copy of Serato DJ to ensure that the software recognizes the controllers.
Aesthetically, Roland has extended its general design ethos to the DJ-505 and DJ-202. From the choice of typeface screened onto the top surface of the controllers, to the predominantly green backlighting, both units are distinctly Roland.
As I began to evaluate both of the controllers, however, I was a little surprised to discover potential issues with build quality. On both the DJ-505 and the -202, all the rotary knobs had considerable front-to-back play to the extent that I wondered if these were actual defects, or design shortcomings. Side-to-side movement is not as extreme, but I don’t recall experiencing any movement of knobs on the DJ-808, and found its presence across all the knobs on both units a bit disconcerting. Unfortunately, the story with the channel- and cross-faders is much the same.
On a more positive note, the platters and buttons on both units were satisfying to use, and had the expected feel. Additionally, both controllers provide dedicated filter knobs, offering both low- and high-pass on a single knob — a frequently omitted feature, especially at the price point of the DJ-202.
The Details: On a unit-by-unit basis, the DJ-505 seems at first to be a lot like the DJ-808. What’s gone is the VT capability, the 4-channel mixer, Roland’s proprietary AIRA Link capability, and the pro-level sample rate in the audio subsystem. Does it matter much? For my money, not really; the VT (or Voice Transformation) function of the DJ-808 was, in my view, one of its least-desirable features, although Roland reps say that it’s actually had a pretty solid uptake among users; clearly its value depends on the type of performance you do with the DJ-808. AIRA Link is another function I could easily live without. There’s no question it adds value if you have a lot of Roland gear in your line-up that’s compatible with it, but in my opinion, the Ableton Link support in Serato itself provides a broader range of creative options when it comes to syncing a DJ set with another performer, or other sound-producing gear.
The DJ-505 brings forward the DJ-808’s on-board drum machine, which was one of my favorite features of that latter controller. The ability to program beats using sounds from Roland’s renowned drum machines and/or samples enables use-case scenarios that simply aren’t easily possible with other controllers. It is essentially a powerful tool to create more seamless and more unique DJ performances across a range of material, and it’s both easy and fun to use in practice.
The DJ-505, despite its mid-tier market position, provides a pretty solid array of pro capabilities in terms of interface. For example, you still get XLR master outs, the ability to mix from external phono or line-level sources, and a MIDI-out connection that provides MIDI-clock capabilities for syncing to external gear. (And don’t forget Serato’s support for Ableton Link, allowing it to sync to Ableon Live, Reason and others.) Bear in mind that the DJ-505 requires external power; the DJ-202 is USB bus-powered.
The DJ-505 unlocks the full Serato DJ experience, and even includes a Serato Toolkit license that includes Pitch ‘n Time DJ, Flip, and other goodies as well.
The DJ-202 is where things start getting more basic. For a start, the DJ-202 unlocks only Serato DJ Intro (Serato’s stripped-down version), thus requiring the user to upgrade to the full Serato DJ version to enable certain advanced features for which Roland has nevertheless provided controls (such as the slicer, and slip mode).
Additionally, the DJ-202’s master outs are limited to RCA connectors — a not-so-subtle commentary on where Roland seems to think this controller fits in the market. Roland also streamlined the effects controls, providing a single knob to control levels across the various effects.
Despite the price and affordability, however, Roland has retained the drum-machine capabilities of the DJ-505 and DJ-808 — albeit moving the control from a dedicated TR section like the DJ-505 and DJ-808, and instead folding the capabilities into the multi-function pads under the platters. Not as easy to use, perhaps, but their presence on a controller at this price point is pretty impressive. Otherwise, the DJ-202 provides pretty much the full range of capabilities you might expect of a Serato controller in its price range.
Conclusions: It seems clear that Roland is continuing to carve out an interesting niche in the DJ-controller space by blurring the lines between traditional DJing and artistic performance, empowering DJs to explore new creative territory. While that’s truest of the DJ-808, both the DJ-505 and DJ-202 might narrow the capabilities down the product line, but they don’t dispense with them, and in my view, that’s Roland’s unique competitive advantage.
Given the cost of the DJ-808, it’s nice to see Roland pushing into the broader DJ market, making affordable solutions available to DJs of all stripes. With the price points of these two units, it’s a pretty sure bet that the Roland logo is going to start appearing in a lot more DJ booths.