This is a picture of a digital media player. It doesn't look quite like an iPod, though, does it? No hint of Zune here either, we don't think. In fact, it looks a lot like a CDJ unit, and that's for a reason: it acts just like a physical media-loving digital disc jockey's unit, but without the 5-inch slot at the front. Instead, it's got USB and SD ports up top. If you're a DJ, you might be familiar with the rest: navigate your folders to find a song, cue it up with the jog wheel, and mix it up. DJ Tech, which started operations in the US just last year, has the uSolo FX as its flagship unit -- does it compare to its competition from giants like Pioneer and Numark? Read on to find out!
If you aren't already a DJ (shame on you!) or haven't yet experienced the thrill of using a traditional CDJ unit, we'll give you a quick primer on this device, and by extension, this class of devices. They take your audio files (WAV or MP3 in this case, stored on a USB or SD mass-storage device of less than 250GB) and give you an extreme amount of control over how you'd like those files played back. That gigantic jog wheel in the center -- which has a pulsating LED tracking ring that keeps time with the beat -- allows you to scrub through the song, slow it down, or do a satisfying wikka-wikka-scratch sound if you're so inclined. We're pretty psyched on the jog wheel in this particular piece of hardware. It's actually broken down into two discrete parts: a flat, grippier-feeling and touch-sensitive top, and a pockmarked hard plastic exterior. The top acts much like an actual piece of spinning vinyl on a turntable: if you touch it, it'll stop; if you spin it backwards, it'll play the song in reverse. The side control is a different story: if you spin it backwards, it'll bend the pitch down depending on how quickly you're back-spinning.
On the right is a pitch bend fader, which can slow down or speed up your song up to 100 percent. Up underneath the LCD screen, you've got a looping section that will keep your song in one place for as long as you'd care to let it. As a nice bonus on the uSolo FX, there's a built-in effects section on the left side of the unit. The jog wheel's two control areas determine the parameters for the solid-sounding flanger, filter, and echo effects.
The uSolo FX performed admirably under all our typical use situations. It felt solidly put together and looked like something to be proud of having on-stage. The extra touches, like brushed aluminum brake- and startup-speed knobs, the ability to use the device as a MIDI controller, and data sharing / pairing capabilities with other units, all add to the expeience. We do have a few minor gripes: if you have a huge library, it'll take a few minutes to index your songs. We also could have used a little more expressiveness in the FX section, and the included Databox playlist management software is Windows-only.
The real story with the uSolo FX, though, is the price. We're at a time when more and more people are exploring DJ culture and using digital tools to change they way they interact with music. At $549, we're not quite sure what this device's target audience is -- its closest analog, the Pioneer CDJ-200, will run you about $500. Pioneer's unit doesn't have much in the way of built-in FX, and although it still relies on CDs, they can be MP3 CDs. And if you're just getting started with digital DJing, you'll probably want to interface with your computer and library with an interface along the lines of Behringer's $200 BCD3000 unit.
There is some price pressure on the uSolo FX from the more economical end of the scale, too. Gemini's CDJ-210, which can be had for less than $200, will play MP3's that have been burned to a CD-R, and won't let you read from a USB device, control MIDI, or include effects. Cheaper models in this space -- like the Gemini -- almost universally feel like toys, also unlike the uSolo FX, but at less than half the price, it's hard to ignore for someone looking for more control over playback of their files.
For those looking for this very specific solution, though -- a USB-enabled media player without the hassle of having to burn to CD, and with built-in effects and MIDI -- you've got it right here. Seasoned digital jocks also might find a spot in the coffin for this dude, and with its Traktor and Serato controller abilities, it certainly has a lot going for it. We just really wish it were cheaper. At $300 or less, it could make a name for itself in the growing community of people looking to have a little more physical fun in the playback of their music, but as it stands, you'll need deep pockets to justify ownership.