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22 Sep 05

HI-LEVEL PM5000 - a modular rotary knob dj mixer reviewed

Reviewed by Timo

 

This DJ mixer boasts rotary pots on every channel and a modular construction. TIMO ROTONEN puts on his lab coat, and finds out more...

pm5000.jpg

Intro

As the "less frills, more sound quality" approach is gaining more edge in the deep house scene over the "more features, the better" (think of DJ mixers that look like they are consoles on the Starship Enterprise rather than a tool for mixing records), it's quite surprising how few basic high-end mixers there are on the market.

Enter the PM5000, the German company HI-LEVEL's stab at providing the best sound and build-quality a house DJ could ever need in a single 19" wide, rack-mountable unit.

NOTE: This mixer is designed for installations at clubs and bars. This review was made in the comfort of my house, so some points in this review may be biased because of the environmental factors. I didn't have a chance to hook the mixer up to a good sized PA system so my comments about headphone volume might have been different.

The mixer

FRONT PANEL

BACK PANEL

This is from Pm-80, essentially the same

CHANNELS:

  • 5 (ins and outs gold plated)

PHONO INPUTS (ex works):

  • 3

EQUALIZER:

  • 3-way
  • Low (peak) +-12dB @ 60Hz
  • Mid (bell, Q=1,5) +-12dB @ 1.5kHz
  • High (shelving) +-12dB @ 12kHz

OUTPUTS:

  • 2 x rec out
  • 1 x master
  • 1 x monitor
  • 1 x headphone

DIMENSIONS:

  • Width: 483mm
  • Lenght: 262 mm
  • Height: 90mm
  • Weight: 6.1kg

PSU:

  • Built in 115 or 220 volts

SUMMARY

A highly specified, great sounding rotary pot mixer with tons of creative potential. With its solid-build and ease of use it deserves to be a big success, even though its price tag puts it towards the upper end of the DJ market. If you're looking for a rotary pot mixer for smooth blends with a great sound, look no further.

PRICE AND AVAILABILITY

  • 935 euros (1085 euros incl. 16% VAT)
  • Built to order

PROS

  • Excellent sound, by far the best sounding mixer I've ever played on
  • Highest quality rotary Alps potentiometers make blends smooth
  • Excellent build-quality and parts
  • Wide variety of built to order custom set-ups available
  • Did I mention about the sound?

CONS

  • Would like to have more headroom on gain (can be easily varied easily by changing some resistors)
  • Low volume on the master out (can be easily varied easily by changing some resistors)

  • Note: HI-LEVEL has a philosophy against blown soundsystems, hence the slight cut in levels. Can be easily changed when ordering a unit.

CONTACT INFORMATION FOR HI-LEVEL

Phase acoustics
Juergen Hoffmann
Drosselstrasse 16
D-72124 Pliezhausen
GERMANY

Internet:
www.HI-LEVEL.de Telephone: +49-(0)7127-972479

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

HI-LEVEL PM5000 is described as "A state-of-the-art house music mixer with 5 rotary pot channels, 15 inputs and up to 5 modular phono preamp cards. PM5000 was introduced already in 1996 and it was the worlds 1st rotary control club mixer with Gain + Triple EQ per channel. Followed by companies like Rane, Numark, Vestax, Ecler, Gemini and Pioneer."

The basic specs have stayed the same pretty much since then, upgrades have been made mainly to the quality of parts used.

It's designed to fit a 19" rack taking up 5 units of space. The controls and the headphone out are on the top, the inputs and outputs on the back side.

The overall look is very professional with a matte black finish. This is a serious piece of hardware aimed at pros, and not a cheap toy is the first impression you get by looking at the PM5k is.

Master section

master.jpg

The master output section has a 4 knobs, a VU meter and a little "cue on" LED. Three smaller knobs control the headphones level, monitor level, and panning. One large knob is controls the overall house volume, so you can rock the crowd with volume drops easily using just one knob.

I would have preferred a dedicated knob for cue volume, since if you're mixing at a low master volume, kicking the cue on can really hurt your ears. Though at a club, you need loud cue volume on the headphones.

I have some minor complaints about the overall output level, but I'll get back to that a little later on.

The VU meter has 2 LED rows next to each other going from green to orange to red. Now, if you're used to mixing with a low or mid-range mixer, the meters on them are more forgiving. Going red on those usually means a healthy level, but on the PM5000, red is a warning sign, the way it is supposed to be. The VU meter switches automatically from the master out level to cue level when one or more of the cue buttons are pressed down.

Note: You can get serious volume in the headphones!

Input channels

inputs.jpg

The unit I received for review had 5 stereo channels (labeled A, 1, 2, 3 & 4) with 2 sets of stereo RCA inputs and 1 balanced XLR microphone input (the XLR input isn't phantom powered, which limits the type of microphones you can use).

The modular design of the PM pretty much lets you spec. a mixer that's best for your own use - the modules on my unit were

  • phono/aux channel modules (2)
  • phono/cd module (1)
  • cd/tape module (1)
  • line/video module (1)

This means: Fully loaded with all RIAA preamp cards - you can connect 5x turntables, 5x CD and 5x balanced microphones to the PM5000.

Gain

The gains could have more headroom. I'm used to mixers where you get a healthy level at 9 o'clock, but on the PM5k you have to turn it to the max almost every time.

Every DJ has encountered bad pressings or just badly mastered records where the volume level is sufficiently lower than most other records. So, getting the levels right is a pain if you're already riding high on the gain and have no headroom left. OK, you can always turn up the channel volume pots you say. Not that simple. I found that to get a really optimal master output level, you have to have both the gains and channel pots turned all the way up. By optimal level I mean the VU's slightly peaking on orange´┐Żnot reaching red at all.

This is a drawback in my opinion - but according to the manufacturer it's a conscious decision and can be altered if the client wishes so. I wish the demo unit had had that option.

Eq

The PM5k has a three-way equalizer on every channel. Nothing new there..... Hmmmm, but let's take a closer look at the details.

First, the low part. It's a peaking, +/-12dB equalizer tuned to 60Hz. "So what?", you might ask. Well, usually a DJ mixer's low-end is tuned to 100hz, which covers a wider range of low frequencies but can also kill a lot of sound in the midrange, which is not desirable. HI-LEVEL studied a lot of DJ-friendly vinyl before deciding to take this approach - they claim that the low-end is tuned to the "disco bass" frequency. It is designed to boost or cut the most thumping bass frequencies without overheating voice coils (read: blowing speakers).

Indeed. Turning the low-eq to zero won't kill the kick altogether - this is something you need to get used to, but in the end your mixes sound a little smoother this way.

The mid part (+/-12dB@1.5kHZ) of the EQ has a bell curve with Q value of 1,5. You can hear the difference to the shelving EQ's. At first, I was a little surprised how much cutting the mids actually affected the levels. Its behavior is not consistent with the other EQ knobs so you have to learn how to control it by trial and error. One improvement might be a differently colored knob or a label next to it to avoid confusion. I understood this after I read the spec more carefully - not a major drawback, but might need a little redesign. The sound itself is great, as usual - the mids sound very musical.

The high part of the EQ sounds very different from any other EQ I've laid my hands on. It's shelving +/-12dB at 12kHZ, "carefully tuned to the range of hi-hats", according to the manufacturer.

Here we encounter one drawback - if you play dusty and badly produced records, you're bound to hear the bad quality. Now, this really isn't the fault of the PM5k - it actually makes you take care of the records you play more carefully. All in all, the highs sound transparent, detailed, soft and natural - it's hard to get the high-end to distort.

Crossfader

The crossfader will be familiar to most DJs, and allows signals from channels 1 and 2 to be mixed with those from channels 3 and 4. The centre-position of course allowing equal levels of both signal groups to be heard. The fifth channel, in this case A (mic/video/line) won't be affected by the cross in any way. “ I don't need a crossfader on a rotary mixer” - well, disconnecting or removing it is an easy 5 minute job.

Cue

Each of the of the 5 channels has a large cue button that enables listening to the individual channel through headphones. When none is pressed, the master outputs can be heard on the headphones. There is no split-cue available, which is a good design decision.

The cue section allows you to monitor incoming signals of each channel before they reach the master output stage, and the controls in this section are particularly clear and well laid out.

Rotary pots

pots.jpg

Each of the 5 input channels has a rotary pot as well as the house volume, the only slider is the crossfader.

This is where this mixer really shines! If you're looking for a mixer that you can scratch and perform fast tricks with, stop right here, as you cannot do that with a PM5000. But if you're looking for a mixer for those looooong, smooth-as-butter blends, you're looking at an obvious choice.

The pot layout looks a bit crammed at first, but when you put your hands on them you'll instantly feel at home with this desk. (Granted, I have fairly skinny fingers so someone with larger hands might prefer the pots to have a little more room between each other.)

In use

The rotary pots have an ULTRA smooth feel, very high quality components were used. The pot hats are made out of matte black plastic and they are big, so you can grab them and rock them easily. It feels like you could not break them, no matter how hard you twist and turn. It took a while to get used to mixing with rotary pots, but I cannot see a way of going back anymore - dammit, I'm hooked! It really is a different world, my blends have never been this transparent and 'live.'

One metaphor would be that my previous Pioneer mixer felt like jogging on gravel, whereas the PM feels like gliding on ice. The torque is perfect. I urge every house DJ to test one out.

What about the sound?

Now, we've come to the 2nd part where this mixer rises above the rest. The sound is amazing and clear. Solid bass. Well defined midrange - the high end has a kind of magical sheen to the sound. It's almost like there's an exciter in the signal path, but soon you'll figure out it's just the high-quality components used to build it. I was able to hear new stuff on records I've had for ages - that does tell you something about the sound.

As I stated, the sound is by far the best I've heard on a DJ mixer - one can get into a debate wether a DJ mixer can sound different because of the simple signal path, but honestly, it's like night and day. One thing PM5000 does require is good needles and clean records. It's a good thing. Believe me. At first I thought the mixer sounded mushy and dirty until I figured out my needles were worn out and some of the records needed good cleaning.... doing this prolongs the life of you priceless vinyl collection!

Conclusion

At 1085 euros (incl. VAT) it's not cheap, but considering the quality it offers (sound, build and parts) is a great value for money. HI-LEVEL are obviously targeting a serious and professional type of customer with the PM5000, and if you're either serious about your sound and creating smooth transparent blends the chances of being disappointed by this mixer are very slim indeed. On the other hand, if you're in the game to perform loads of fast turntable wizardy and scratching, then this mixer clearly is not for you. The only drawback was the gains and the overall output volume, but this is supposedly easy to adjust.

Am I buying the demo model? Hell yes!

Where to buy?

Phase acoustics
Juergen Hoffmann
Drosselstrasse 16
D-72124 Pliezhausen
GERMANY

Internet: www.HI-LEVEL.de

Telephone: +49-(0)7127-972479

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