Pathos Acoustics has established an enviable reputation as a purveyor of ultra-smart audio equipment that performs to high sonic standards, while successfully treading the fine line that exists between style-driven and audio-purist kit.

From its base in Italy, the firm produces amplifiers and CD players that make a strong visual statement (they presumably don't please all tastes, but we think they're gorgeous) and generally seem to perform as well as they look.

Two CD players grace the current range: for £4,500 you can have the futuristic-looking and fantastically named Endorphin, but a little under half that amount will buy you the Digit.

Okay, so the Digit doesn't get as punchy a name and is clearly less visually arresting than its more expensive sibling, but it does share quite a lot of the Endorphin's technology.

In terms of size and shape, the Digit would appear to be in danger of trespassing on Cyrus's territory, even though the look is significantly different. Apart from anything else, there are valves sticking up from the top.

This is a Pathos speciality - most of the company's products use valves in combination with solid-state components, so as to make the most of each type's strengths. In this case, the valves are E88CC types - a familiar twin triode (two active elements per 'bottle') that partners well with transistors, not least because, by valve standards, it works at quite low voltages.

Are valves in a CD player just for show, or do they offer 'to taste' tuning (degradation, even) of the sound? Not according to Pathos, whose justification for them is well founded.

Indeed, many designers would agree that the simple but high-performance circuits which are typical of valve applications have a lot to offer compared with the sometimes over-complex designs all too easily cobbled together with transistors and their miniaturised relatives, integrated circuits.

Yes, the latter are an unavoidable part of digital audio life, but why compound the potential offence? Within its stainless-steel case, the Digit spins discs on what is, in fact, a DVD transport.

As Pathos points out, it does exactly the same job as a dedicated CD one, but it does have one small downside: it takes longer to load discs, as it looks for DVD information before scanning for CD information. In common with most DVD drives, it emits a faintly audible ticking as it reads the disc, although it's actually inaudible in any practical sense.

Conversion from digital to analogue is carried out by an integrated circuit, in this case from Cirrus Logic, the same chip that carries out digital filtering (as is usual these days). There's no upsampling, but there is upsampling and word-length reduction as part of the filtering process. Further ICs handle the balanced audio output.

Quite a large area of the audio circuit board is laid out for extra components but not actually populated with them, and the total audio path is about as simple as can be. Power comes via a small toroidal transformer snugly mounted at the rear of the case. Internal and external build quality seems generally very good.

Just about the only thing we could find that struck us as being a little bizarre, not to say annoying, was the complete absence of legends on the front panel buttons. Yes, one gets used to the layout and which button does which, but we did curse it once or twice. And yes, there's always the remote.

Sound quality

We expected good things from the Digit and, on the whole, we weren't disappointed. We didn't necessarily expect a 'classic valve sound', and we were pleasantly surprised to find that that's exactly what the player delivers - at least if you take the phrase to mean a sound that's 'lush but lax'.

In fact, this is a player with a serious grip on proceedings, and this is very much a characteristic that cropped up during the test process. Throughout our protracted listening period with various amps (some employing balanced connection, since the Digit offers that facility) and speakers, we found it a consistent feature.

We wouldn't want to imply that the sound is, therefore, relentless or dissected with some kind of grim determination, as there's no hint of any such unpleasantness, but there is definitely a sense that things are in no danger whatsoever of getting out of hand.

This is most obvious, not surprisingly, in the bass, but also applies higher up the band - the decay into ambient noise of high-pitched percussion, for instance, is deliberate rather than entirely airy.

Is that praise or complaint? We'd say it's praise - the Digit presents things as they should be, rather than adding its own element of chance. We're confident in saying that because we tried several recordings of familiar performers in familiar spaces - familiar, that is, from live encounters - and the overall sensation was impressively lifelike. This player is admirably honest, particularly in its rendition of tonal character.

That said, we have reservations about certain aspects of the sound. Chief among these was stereo imaging. It's a tricky thing to get just right, because it relies on very subtle cues to work well, so the smallest departure from perfection can have a noticeable impact. In this case, images seem to become compressed towards the front of the soundstage as the music grows in complexity and dynamic level.

Image width is much less affected: if one is to be really fussy, there's perhaps a slight narrowing, but it's definitely the depth that's more clearly affected.

Along with that, there's just a trace of grain at times in some kinds of music, pretty much the kinds you'd expect to show it up - precise and polished classical, for a start. Some recent opera recordings are not quite as clear as we've heard them, while one or two rock recordings made with audiophile principles in mind show up the same characteristic.

At very low levels we could find nothing amiss: the player's lack of intrinsic noise or grunge making for beautifully silent backgrounds, so whatever defect causes the grain clearly is a function of the audio signal itself.

In fact, we've a suspicion it may be jitter, as this was the only measurement we took on the player, which fell a little short of the high standards that are so prevalent these days. But it's not a permanent feature of the sound, and most of the time the good aspects significantly outweigh the bad.

One particularly praiseworthy area of the Digit's performance is solo human voice. Because voice is almost invariably mixed near the centre and fairly forward, it's not affected much by any kind of imaging oddities, and its tonal nature makes it less critical of grain, so it can benefit fully from the Digit's excellent tonality as well as its fine dynamic ability.

We listened to a wide range of vocal tracks in all sorts of styles and found ourselves getting really involved - the true nature and raw emotion of voices from Johnny Cash to Kathleen Ferrier come across with very little impediment.

The Digit is similarly confident with piano music, where the grip we have come to love (see earlier) makes for a sound with plenty of impact and clearly detailed resonance too.

On the debit side, orchestras and other large ensembles seem a little lacking in spatial scale, and choirs are perhaps a touch homogenised. This kind of thing tends to become more obvious the longer one listens, and we found that it dampened our initial enthusiasm for

the player somewhat. Then again, a few minutes listening to the right sort of music restores positive feelings. Bizarrely, 'the right sort' included both highly energetic and very laid-back styles - it's the stuff in between that seems to trip the player up.

We may seem to have been a little harsh on what is without doubt a good player, but then standards around £2,000 are high, and we've become fussy through being spoiled. We have nothing but admiration for the Digit's looks and found a lot to like in its performance; we'd certainly recommend giving it a try.