Pathos Endorphin CD Player Reviewed

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In the pantheon of truly stupid product names comes a new contender to rival 'Nimbly' and 'Glowy': the Pathos Endorphin. It's bad enough that the company's name - which my dictionary defines as 'the quality that raises pity' - is in itself utterly ludicrous for an audio manufacturer. But 'Endorphin'?

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Those of us who were awake the day that they were teaching peptides in biology class know that endorphin is a chemical occurring naturally in the human brain - the very substance that turns fitness fanatics into, well, addicts. By encouraging the release of dopamine, it produces feelings of enjoyment and pleasure, a sensation that has been likened to certain recreational drugs.

You can see where Pathos is going with this: the combined name, in addition to suggesting the aforementioned pity (!?!!?) now evokes a sense of well-being. But, as English is not the company's first language (and you really do have to name products in English if you wish to sell anything globally), they probably didn't see the sheer clumsiness, the linguistic thuggery of the nomenclature. It's bad enough that the Japanese have made an art of ruining English.

Why this preamble? Because, name aside, this CD player is blindingly good, and I would hate to think that the more sophisticated among you might be put off by the unit's moniker. More importantly, it's part of a wave of seriously expensive and complex CD players - including the Audio Research CD7 and Musical Fidelity's kW25, machines from Ayre, Marantz, McIntosh, Muse, and numerous others - that want us to see out CD's final days in style. That is, if you believe we'll only be able to download music in the future, and that discs and other forms of physical sound carrier will disappear. But more than the other new mega-machines, the Pathos ia also a work of art ... in the best Italian sense.

Which is why I'm prepared to overlook its other two curses. My distaste for top-loaders mainly applies to conventional, vertical front panel, box-type chassis players that don't use the logical choice of a drawer (e.g. the Audio Research players). I have to be a realist, though, about the Endorphin because its form is inherently and deliberately top-loading. Its very 'top-loaderness' is its core design feature. Resenting it is futile.

Not so the other b�te noir of the design, a purely stylistic fillip that smacks of the sort of arrogance best left on the catwalk. Otherwise, I'm at a loss to explain why the buttons on both the unit itself and on the more glamorous of the two supplied remotes are devoid of any identifying marks. Far be it for me to tell an Italian about style, but the globally-recognised symbols that denote stop, start and forward/reverse, are actually perfect and by now iconic representations of their functions, and they are as impossible to fault as the symbols for men, women and the wheelchair-bound on loo doors. To remove them in order to impart some chic minimalism is simply sadistic. Which is why you'll find yourself more likely to use the ugly, generic, plastic remote also supplied with the Pathos than the elegant, gloss-black six-button wand that begs to be displayed on your coffee table.

That, you'll be relieved to hear, is as far as my criticisms go. Why? Because the Pathos Endorphin is simply one of the most fetching, most desirable, most attractive, most exhilarating pieces of hi-fi equipment to come down the pike since the first Oracle turntable. To see it is to want it ... if you're an audiophile. And if you're not, you will at least go, 'What the hell is that?' Boring it most certainly is not. In fact, I would say it is as visually arresting as a watch by F.P. Journe, a pen from Marlen, or Angelina Jolie.

Pathos, however, would never release a component that offered only looks. This is no footballer's wife, devoid of any merit or function beyond that of exercising a credit card or one's bedsprings. Pathos has made a name for itself for marrying the best of solid-state and the best of tubes. In the rather witty owner's manual (one instruction says 'Don't skip the BS, please'), the presence of two valves is described succinctly as follows:

Bits and Tubes. What's the fit?
For years, a common belief within the audiophile community has been that of tubes "warming up" the cold and sharp digital sound. Today, with the ultimate digital technology--and you can stay sure we are using the very ultimate--this is no longer the case.

So what are those tubes for? The fact is tubes are, still today, the very best device available for amplifying voltage. And that's the one and only reason why we use tubes in our analogue stage of the Endorphin. No fashion, no nostalgia.

Now that is a seriously cool message, and it's hard to believe it was probably written by the guy who came up with the name. But there are two Sovtek 6H30PIs peeping out between the rear aluminium struts, a juxtaposition that would cause you to do a double-take had you not been pre-warned that this is a hybrid. A vast expanse of gleaming black Perspex accented by aluminium pillars, CD aperture surround and disc cover, a flip-up display - and then this abject, unashamed modernism is punctuated by a brace of valves pointing upward like, well, a pair of pert nipples. But deliberate sexuality or not, the effect is like fitting a wind-up clock to the dash of a Ferrari 599.

Because the Endorphin is hot of the assembly line - the owner's manual even has 'provisional' written across its cover in red ink - information is in short supply. This is par for the Pathos course, as they do like to play their cards close to their collective chest, but I can at least tell you that the player offers both single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) outputs and both coaxial and optical digital outputs should you wish to use it solely as a transport. Which would seem rather wasteful, as the unit contains dual-differential 24-bit delta-sigma DACs with conversion rate up to 192kHz and the Class A, zero feedback analogue stage is, as you now know from the above clues, fully-balanced and valve-equipped.

Fine on-board processing or not, I still tried it through a few DACs of varying vintages, pedigrees and levels of sophistication, and found - as is so often the case with well-conceived, single-chassis players not burdened by the compromises of economy - that the Pathos transport works perfectly with its own DAC. I think the word one would borrow from an oenophile is l'abbinamento. However, it did reveal its own unique signature through whatever DAC I fed it - from the affordable Quad CDP99II to the Marantz DA-12 - so I could see Pathos one day offering it solely as a transport should the savings sans DAC be large enough to justify its removal.

Aside from the irritating lack of button identification, operation was utterly straightforward. The beautifully-designed-and-made lid was easily re-positioned over the CD, the magnets snapping it into place, and not once did I lift it off to find myself scythed by a flying CD - or disco volante, given the provenance of the Endorphin.

Neither did I encounter any mismatches with the various systems I employed. The bulk of the listening, however, consisted of the Pathos fed through the McIntosh C2200 pre-amp and MC2102 power amp via Yter interconnects for single-ended use and Kimbers for balanced. The Mcintosh in turn drove the Sonus faber Guarneris (original rather than current version) through Yter speaker cable.

Maybe it's because I let the unit warm up sufficiently before giving it a whirl, but my initial exposure was positively revelatory. I know, some of you are thinking - how could he wait? Does Kessler enjoy infinite patience? Er, no. I was multi-tasking at the time, so I plugged it in, got distracted and forgot about it for six hours. When I returned, I slipped in Keb' Mo's sublime Peace...Back by Popular Demand. Bam! He was in the room, sound free of artefacts, living and breathing and ... natural. I was so shocked by the sound that I can only describe myself as 'taken aback.'

Obviously, by that I mean 'good' taken aback. It wasn't the usual audio schozophrenia of yet another expensive, poorly-made piece of crap that delivered killer sound. You can see that I was falling prey to that vile audiophilic prejudice which dictates that If A Product Looks Good, It Must Sound Dire Because The Money Was Spent On Cosmetics Rather Than Internals. I was ashamed of myself for pre-judging the Pathos in a style-vs-substance face-off.

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