There are three flavours of Pico, and we had two of them. The first is the Pico Component Grounding Block, which features a pair of line-level sockets and some interconnects that you attach to unused line-level sockets on any source component or amplifier. The second is the Pico Binding Posts Grounding Block, which mount to the back of your amplifier or loudspeaker. Although it might be possible to use just one of these Binding Post blocks, by connecting one terminal of the left and right channel at the amp end, in reality most people will stump up for one Pico per channel, with the blocks sitting close to the loudspeakers.
Similarly, while you can share one Pico Component block between two audio devices, typically people will use a block for each component. In essence, the Picos contain an acoustic absorption labyrinth and various EMI and RFI reduction techniques. And note that the leads provided have matched acoustic properties and are sleeved with EMI reduction materials – they are very much part of the Pico technology and other leads should not be used. The missing device is the much larger ‘Six-Way’ Component Grounding Block, which as the name suggests goes from two line-level sockets to six separate grounding lines. We used a pair of Component and a pair of Binding Post Picos, and used them in systems appropriate to such a roll-out (a source, an integrated amplifier, and a pair of loudspeakers).
We also had a pair of Jaya mains filters in the mix. These are old favourites in the Hi-Fi+ offices, and we won’t go too deep into their actions, except to say they are used next to the system on power sockets, rather than in the audio system chain. In a way, the actions of the Jaya and Pico are similar, in that they both stand outside the system and act inwards.
Interestingly, what we aren’t going to discuss at all is the systems to which these devices were connected. Let’s just leave it at ‘source, integrated amplifier, and a pair of loudspeakers’. The reason for this is manifold. I don’t wish to make people think that this applies to specific systems and not to others (I found through experimentation that the Pico/Jaya mix works universally, and that those who can’t, don’t, or won’t hear it, are unable to hear it on any equipment). In addition, I don’t want claims of ‘stacking the deck’ by making a system uniquely suspectable to the Pico and Jaya’s effects. Then, I don’t want this effect to be given some kind of price floor or price ceiling, reinforced by the equipment the Vertex AQ system was used with (if we put this with a system worth £x, there is a natural tendency for those with systems costing more than £x to think their systems are better, and the Pico/Jaya paring won’t improve performance, and those with systems less than £x will claim it’s ‘too rich for their blood’ – neither is the case). Perhaps most interestingly, the idea of reviewing the sound of a system without a system is oh, so very Zen Koan.
As common with good equipment, but especially important in the case of Vertex AQ, the ‘short, sharp shock’ of quick-fire A-B demonstrations is not recommended. To some, this means an almost immediate rejection of the Vertex AQ concepts, on the grounds that if a change is too subtle to be heard in rapid A-B comparison, it doesn’t exist. End of story. Although there are counter-arguments to drawing all your conclusions from such snap judgements from auditory neuroscience, psychology, and signal detection theory, many are so firmly bonded to the rapid A-B switching test that no such other methodology will find traction. If you can get past the quick-fire A-B test, however, you may find the actions of the Pico and Jaya are a subtle, yet ultimately persuasive, force for good in your audio system.
The methodology selected by Vertex AQ to test any of their products is different to quick-fire A-B, then, but every bit as repeatable. It involves inserting the relevant Vertex AQ product or products into your system for a couple of weeks or more, not focusing on how that product has changed or shaped the sound, or even how your musical listening has changed during the period the Vertex AQ equipment is in place. Then, when the time comes to remove the equipment, at that point listen critically to how your system sounds. If, in the process, you find the removal of components you find the system has changed its performance, and you don’t like what you hear, you have taken your first step toward the systematic approach promoted by the likes of Vertex AQ. Over time, this ‘evaluate on removal’ methodology becomes both intrinsic to the way you select equipment, and gets a little quicker.
Of course, this typically means a good working relationship with a friendly dealer, because you can’t assess this kind of systemic change to audio evaluation in a demonstration room, or even on a weekend’s loan. You need, at least at first, to be able to borrow these components for weeks rather than hours, to see how they work, and whether they have an influence on your own listening.
If you are receptive to hearing what Pico can do, just what can it do? Strangely, it isn’t system dependent. It makes your system ‘straighten up and fly right’, and does so by bringing it more into line with what’s commonly considered good sound. I think the majority of systems could be considered ‘mostly good’, otherwise they wouldn’t be put together as systems. They are just slightly off-kilter, and that off-kilter performance often gets worse as we try to compensate by spending our way out of a crisis. Pico attempts to put that off-kilter sound back on track, and the effect is cumulative; more Pico boxes, more course correction. Add the Jayas and the correction increases still further.
To paraphrase the adverts for Berocca effervescent vitamineral supplements that periodically spring up on UK television screens, “Your system, but on a really good day!” This is why you are faced with a system review without a system, because Pico’s effect is convergent. Systems with a spot of brightness are slightly less bright. Those that are a little lead-footed get a little faster and tighter. Siblant loudspeakers don’t focus on the sibilance as much as they used to.
This applies across the board. Although many systems are ‘mostly good’, few are ‘all good’, and most could do with some subtle rebalancing in a way. Whether it’s to get rid of that slight upper bass thickness, giving the soundstage a little bit more separation, or increasing the overall detail levels slightly, most of our systems need a tune up at times. And that’s precisely what Pico boxes offer.
How profound you find the change brought about from Pico boxes seems in part dependent on the perception of the user. In a way, the action is a little like a drug that has an effect stronger than placebo, but its effect is moderated by the user’s belief in the efficacy of the drug. This sounds impossible, but is commonly considered to be how diazepam works. Some will hear huge differences in using Pico boxes, some will hear ‘nuanced’ differences, but most will hear differences unless they are resolutely determined not to.