Update: After you’ve read this article, before you rush out and buy one of these, you should read this update (don’t worry, I’ll link to it at the bottom of the page too.
It’s rare for me to suffer from “gear lust” but the M-Audio Xponent set my pulse racing when I discovered it on the web. I’ve now had it for a few days so here’s my review. I won’t be reviewing the Torq software: I haven’t used it, as I only have Linux at the moment.
There’s a separate article about my experience getting the Xponent working with Linux and mixxx.
First a bit about me. I started DJing in 1993 (on vinyl, of course). Over the last 3 or 4 years I rather went off it for one reason or another, but recently I started dreaming of getting some CDJs and starting again. But then I started thinking maybe a laptop and a hardware controller made more sense… if I could find a controller I liked.
The problem is that until recently, most DJ controllers have been little more than toys, not really professional quality. But now pro gear is starting to appear. The ones I considered included the Vestax VCI100, and the EKS XP10, but the Xponent won out for several reasons:
- The Vestax has no built-in audio, so I’d need to get a soundcard. No biggy perhaps, but I liked the idea of an all-in-one solution.
- Likewise the EKS has audio but no mixer: You buy a pair like turntables and connect them to a mixer. If I was going to do that, I’d need a new mixer as my old one is rubbish. That would push the cost up.
- The control layout. On every other product, the buttons are all more or less identical, so you need to read the label alongside or on top, at least until you’ve memorised their positions. And you’ll still need a torch if DJing in a darkened room, as this review of the VCI100 makes plain. The Xponent’s illuminated buttons are all different, they’re laid out in a clear and logical way, there are loads of them so plenty of scope for effects control / looping / etc… and by putting the symbols on the buttons, and making them light up in different colours, M-Audio have produced a console that looks like it will be easy to use and intuitive both in daylight and in the dark!
The big question mark was the quality. From the pictures on the M-Audio website, it looked solidly built, but nonetheless a bit plasticky. The Vestax, meanwhile, was getting praise for its build quality, but problems were being reported with the way its jogwheels sent data which could only be resolved by returning the unit to a Vestax service centre. That, its inferior number of controls compared to the Xponent, and the fact that the Xponent had built-in audio, helped finalise my decision.
Is it hot or not?
Having received it, I’m quite happy with the build quality. It’s a fairly large beast, with a similar footprint to a vinyl turntable, and although not exactly heavy it has some heft to it. Yes it’s made of plastic but it doesn’t feel cheap (with one exception which I’ll come to). You wouldn’t want to take it to a gig without some kind of protective case or bag, but the same goes for most modern gear really.
The time has come to push the button
The buttons are firm, low profile rubberised affairs with rounded edges, and they feel like they’re up to the job. When pressed they don’t move much, which means you can time the press precisely by using an intuitive “tapping” action. The click is quite subtle, and it might not be obvious enough whether you’ve successfully pressed the button (though it doesn’t exactly take much force to do so), but for the fact that when pressed the button’s light brightens and then fades (over about a second) back to its normal glow level. I love this feature: I could not wish for a more obvious (and pretty) way of knowing that I’ve pressed a button. (By the way, this happens entirely in the hardware, it’s not dependent on software). Some of the larger buttons seem to have two click points, but it doesn’t matter whether you hear one or two clicks, you only get a single MIDI event. I imagine that having two clickers under there allows the button to be pushed anywhere on its surface, not just in the middle, and still fire reliably. The small square buttons (eg the kill switches) seem to need slightly more of a conscious push than the others; given their likely function, this is no bad thing.
As I said before, I think the layout of the buttons, the fact that they’re different shapes, sizes and colours according to their function, their on-button labelling with clear symbols rather than next-to-button text labels, and that you can see them all in the dark, gives this console an immediate edge over its competitors. M-Audio are to be congratulated on this design job.
The knobs likewise are illuminated, although they don’t get brighter when turned. Obviously it’s not really feasible to have an illuminated symbol on the top of each knob, so this is where the careful layout pays dividends: each knob sits adjacent to a button, so it’s easy to remember which is which, for example in the channel EQ section. The only pairs of knobs where you’ll have to memorise which way around they are (or use a torch) are the Master & Booth levels, and the Headphone Cue and Levels. Incidentally the 3 level controls seem to be just a tad brighter than the other knobs — not sure if that’s intentional, but it can help to remind that they are the only 3 controls which don’t send MIDI.
Hey DJ, spin that wheel!
The jog wheels feel really good to me. Rotation is totally smooth, they don’t click like some cheap encoders. They’ve got some weight to them, so have a bit of momentum when spun, but not too much. Both the sides and the touch-sensitive top have good grip. Like the VCI100 and some CDJs, these wheels are truly touch sensitive (detecting the impedance change resulting from skin contact on the surface), not pressure sensitive or requiring a push down. The top doesn’t feel like metal though. Touching the top of the wheel always sends a midi note (and it’s very sensitive), so it’s up to your software to act on it or not and switch modes when the touch-sensitivitity button is pressed — that button doesn’t change the hardware at all. The note off is sent as soon as you stop touching the wheel top, even if the wheel is still spinning, so it shouldn’t suffer from the scratch problems noted on the Vestax.
The height of the wheels is just right to ensure that your hands are clear of the other controls while using them scratch-style, so the fact they’re at the top of the console rather than the bottom shouldn’t concern you — I think this was the right way around. And they’re close to the edges of the console so when using them from the side for making jog speed adjustments, again your hands and arms are clear of other controls. The little indentations around the side are sufficient for your finger to grip if you want to nudge the wheel’s side while your hand is above it, if you prefer to work that way.
I think if you’re intending to use them primarily for scratching, you might wish they had a little less weight/momentum. They are pretty much the ideal weight for mixing, perhaps less so for scratching because it’s difficult to achieve a very rapid back-and-forth motion while maintaining precision. I’ve never really been into scratching, so don’t trust my opinion, but if that’s your primary interest you might want to try before you buy.
The jogwheels aren’t illuminated. It’s not a problem to find them in the dark, as they’re marked out by the four buttons that surround each of them, so any illumination would have been for show. But one of the club DJ’s jobs is to be a showman, to be watched by the punters. I like the idea of having little pinpoint red LEDs dotted around the rim of each wheel so people can see it being used. Whether that’s even remotely feasible I don’t know. Vestax went for back-illumination on theirs, so perhaps not.
Slip & slide
Now, one of the selling points of the Xponent for me was its long-throw high-resolution pitch sliders. They transmit MIDI Pitch Bend rather than Continuous Controller: Because this represents the value in 14 bits rather than 7, in theory they could have upto 128 times more resolution than normal controllers. In practice, the physical hardware of a pitch bend controllers is never going to be that accurate. On the Xponent you only about 4 times more, but that’s enough to give you a resolution of about 0.04% on a +/-10% range; with a normal CC fader you only get about 0.15%.
Unfortunately the sliders themselves are too light, too easy to move. The pitch sliders do have a little bit of resistance (unlike the crossfader and channel faders which are virtually frictionless), and curiously that resistance seems to be increasing with use… but it’s nowhere near enough to be able to make those precise little nudges that we’re used to from the Technics SL-1200/1210mk2 or the Pioneer CDJs, and it’s far too easy to nudge any of the faders accidentally with a sleeve or a brush of the hand.
To see if I could improve the pitch sliders, I levered the top off my Technics 1200’s pitch slider. I found a little felt washer there, and tried putting it underneath the Xponent’s slider cap. It didn’t make a significant difference, but possibly a thicker felt washer would help — as would a weightier slider cap I think. Really it’s the slider itself that’s too loose, but it should be possible to add something that will give it a bit of surface drag.
I’m not sure that the same can be done for the channel faders, as their caps are a different shape and not conducive to having something shoved under them. You really have to watch your sleeves near those guys, and I find it difficult to do a smooth fade when the fader is so light. As for the crossfader… some people like having a light crossfader; I don’t, because I like long mixes, and I also find I’m more likely to over-kick the fader to one side at the end of a mix if it’s really light. That’s why I knackered the crossfader on my Numark mixer within a few weeks. I can’t see this one lasting very long, and it doesn’t appear to be easily replaceable… To give you an idea of how light it is, if you put the crossfader hard right, and give it a flick to the left, it will bounce off the other end and all the way back to the middle! If I had my preference it wouldn’t even reach hard left under its own steam, much less bounce off it.
One more gripe about the faders, though it’s minor by comparison. Unlike the buttons, they aren’t lit. It’s not usually a problem to find them thanks to the fact that everything around them is lit up like a Christmas tree, but it would be sweeter if they had their own illumination.
The sound quality seems fine. The device is slightly odd as a soundcard because it lacks a digital mixer: the output level, booth level and headphone level controls all act directly on the post-DAC analogue signal as far as I can make out, so it doesn’t need one. I think this makes more sense than having those as MIDI controls, but it’s not clear if these knobs are VCA controls or if the audio actually passes through them.
The headphone level could perhaps do with a little more juice. It’s probably adequate for good headphones, but it seems like it wouldn’t be loud enough to drive difficult headphones in a club environment.
I haven’t yet had the chance to do A-B comparisons of the sound quality against my other soundcard. Watch this space.
I was somewhat surprised and pleased to get the trackpad controlling my Xorg mouse cursor without any faff. I’m not qualified to compare it to trackpads generally as I’ve never used one for more than a minute… however, my immediate impression is that you wouldn’t want to use it if you had a choice. It seems a bit inaccurate. Much better, I think, to stick to using it as a MIDI x-y controller.
If you’re thinking of buying one of these to take to clubs, the size may be an issue. Most DJ booths don’t exactly have a lot of space to spare. You could put this baby on top of a turntable with the lid down, but for the fact that Technics lids have that lump in them which will prevent the Xponent sitting flat. Your best bet might be to get a folding stand so you’re not reliant on finding deskspace for it. You still need a space for the laptop too of course.
Features I haven’t tried yet
- The Torq software. I don’t run Windows or MacOS until such time as I get a laptop to go with this thing, so for now it’s plugged into my desktop PC running Linux and mixxx. More on that in the next article.
- There are sockets on the back for a footswitch and an expression pedal. This is an interesting idea, though I’m not sure to what use I’d put them; there are enough controls on the top for my purposes.
- The MIDI IN and OUT sockets. The Xponent presents two MIDI connections to USB; the first carries the onboard controller messages, so I presume that the second simply forwards the MIDI IN connection. If I felt the desperate need to have more knobs, I could hook up my Kenton Control Freak Live… or just use it as a way to splice my MIDI-based studio into my computer without needing a separate MIDI interface.
- The lights. Those VU meters in the middle aren’t actually VU meters. They, and presumably those 8 red LEDs on either side and the brightness of the various buttons, are intended to be controlled from software. I presume they respond to MIDI commands of some kind or other, but the manual doesn’t document how they work, and the few bytes I’ve sent to the Xponent so far have had no effect. If anyone can help out here I’d be much obliged.
I love the Xponent’s design. It’s control layout, buttons and wheels are spot on: they look good and they handle well. There are more controls and more features than other consoles in this price range. The sound quality seems fine, and having a separate booth output with its own volume means you really don’t need an external mixer at all.
The only fault I can find is the sliders, but it’s a biggy. At this price point, there’s no excuse for using cheap, loose, sub-Numark lightweight faders; they drag down the overall quality feel of the unit which is otherwise high, and in my opinion they pose a real problem for professional use. I’m sticking with the Xponent because realistically I’m not expecting to gig with it very often, and because I still think it’s the best controller for the money. But I would appeal to M-Audio: If you are serious about making controllers for professional DJs, don’t skimp on something so important.
However… the sliders really aren’t the end of the world. It just needs a bit of creativity on my part; find some foam of the right thickness and density, shove it under the slider caps, and they’ll be fine. That I should have to do this on a Â£400 piece of kit is lamentable, but the fact is, I remain of the opinion that the Xponent is probably the best DJ console out there right now for under Â£400.
Update: Sep 2007
Short story: My Xponent developed a fault and went back. Longer story. If you’re thinking of buying one, I’d advise you also read this forum for a range of both positive and negative experiences, so you can make a more informed decision.