I've learned something about critical listening (by which I mean listening to evaluate equipment rather than simply enjoying it).
I feel like I have a "good ear"-- depending on what you mean by that. I mean that I notice how the music makes me feel deep down, like a gut reaction, rather than thinking about the sound. But this mainly helps me evaluate large differences between devices. When differences are small, I am not sure I perceive them reliably. I think I do hear them, but I don't evaluate very well the absolute size of the difference -- I can't reliably tell if it's a large or a small difference. I tend to exaggerate the size of it, thinking that every difference I hear is large.
I discovered something that is about my critical listening -- when I'm not listening for enjoyment -- which is that I tend to "stare" at the sound, like the equivalent of looking at a photograph and staring hard at it (blocking out surroundings). But for hearing the important qualities (these gut qualities) it is better to listen "out of the corner of my ear" (like peripheral vision) - not really staring or listening directly to the sound, but defocusing, hanging out in a middle space, not paying too much attention but not spacing out either. As the Buddha would say, The Middle Way.
I think people naturally fall into this state when listening for enjoyment, and when hearing something for the first time with "beginner's mind" (with no expectations).
I like good dynamics -- and I mean by that that dynamic changes (large or small) create deep-down feelings. I mostly listen to fairly subtle classical music in which the players use small changes in dynamics to create enormous musical expression and feeling.
Which reminds me, I like musicality and lyricism -- the general ability of the equipment to draw me into feeling the music rather than thinking about it.
Here are some things I've owned which have these properties:
- Naim CD5x (cd player) and Nait 3 (integrated amp) -- the Naim is fantastic for dancy rhythm, called sometimes PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing)
- Hifiman EF5 - also great for PRaT. Not so much musicality stock, but fantastically beautiful after the K Works mod
- Woo WA6SE - fantastic dynamics
- K Works Superberry DAC -- I liked my Naim CD player, but this DAC betters it - has just as much PRaT but adds much more resolution, sweeter and more extended highs, and even better dynamics