Tech Review: Native Instruments Kontrol Z1: The Definitive Traktor DJ Controller & Soundcard
About a month ago, Native Instruments announced they would release a soundcard with built-in controller called the Kontrol Z1. This device built up some hype prior to launch as a crucial accessory to the iPhone/iPad’s Traktor DJ, and was released July 4. We at Robotic Peacock couldn’t help but snag one up for our iPad 2, as it serves as a high quality, class-compliant soundcard and 2 channel mixing controller for our beloved Traktor DJ (now free for a limited time on the iTunes store!). The Z1 can also act as a soundcard/controller for Traktor on your Mac or PC.
Anyone familiar with a 2 channel DJ mixer will feel right at home with this device. It features 2 high-quality stereo outputs (one for the master mix, and a second for the cue/headphone mix.) The Z1 has the ability to control the blend of cue output and master output sent to the headphones, along with selecting one or both channels in the headphones. The headphone amplifier easily drove a pair of Sennheiser HD-25s and Allen & Heath Xone headphones, however they didn’t produce an extremely high output like you would find on a Pioneer DJM or Allen & Heath Xone mixer. This could be an issue in a club setting if you like to mix without having the headphones directly over one or both ears.
Also on the Z1 is a 3-band EQ, controllable with very smooth-feeling knobs. Volume sliders and the cross fader feel solid and are intuitive to use. VU meters along the volume sliders help you adjust your gain levels correctly before mixing the track in. Additionally, a Filter/FX multi-purpose knob is available for controlling Traktor’s built in effects. The on/off and filter/FX mode select buttons have a solid click and are very responsive while mixing. Here’s a nice hardware overview from NI’s website:
The Z1 comes with cables to connect to your 30-pin iPad or iPhone (no lightning connector, just use an adapter with your charging cable.) Finally, a world-traveler-compatible AC adapter is included, but only required when using the iPad or iPhone. A huge plus to this power supply is it charges your portable device while using it. Note you don’t need the power supply when using the Z1 with a laptop.
A very cool possibility the Z1 unlocks is launching a second app (Animoog, for example) while Traktor DJ is running. You can control Traktor with the Z1 while using the iPad to control the soft synth. There weren’t any noticeable audio dropouts when this was tested, but a newer iPad might have a lower probability of a crash with this intense CPU load. There were a couple crackles when we launched Magellan while Animoog and Traktor DJ were running in full force. Launching multiple synths (or one CPU-intensive synth) running together is not recommended on an iPad 2 in a live setting.
Audio quality is a noticeable step up over the standard iPad headphone output – both for Traktor and synth apps. Both maximum output and audio fidelity receive a noticeable improvement with the Z1. The ability to cue up a track while having the master in stereo (as opposed to a mono output for master and mono for cue) is a crucial feature for professional use. Very little distortion resulted when a track was allowed to hit +3dB on the VU meter, which is a testament to the Traktor DJ built-in limiters. Tons more can be said about the general sound quality and features of Traktor DJ, see our full review for more.
In use, the Z1 takes Traktor DJ from a novelty app to a true alternative DJ setup capable of live performance; allowing the DJ to have control over multiple parameters simultaneously is essential to crafting a professional mix. There was no detectable lag or issues when twisting knobs, moving sliders, and setting loops. Even with only two decks, there is plenty of opportunity for multiple users to craft a mix. The only improvement would be transport controls (play/cue/etc.) allowing a cued track to be launched without touching the iPad.
In summary, the Kontrol Z1 is a killer soundcard for your iPad or iPhone while being the definitive controller for Traktor DJ. Aspiring DJs without an iPad may still find an interest with the Z1, as it comes with a limited version of Traktor for the laptop. If you do have an iPad and enjoy Traktor DJ, this is a no-brainer and turns your iPad into a legitimate ultra-portable DJ rig.