Ray, a few comments…and bear in mind that I value ‘fidelity’, not ‘quality.’ Fidelity is simply the accuracy of a reproduced signal compared to the source signal. It’s objective and quantifiable. Quality, on the other hand, is totally subjective. To illustrate my point, if I were to run a song through an outboard compressor to give the sound more ‘punch’ or to decrease the dynamic range, one could rightfully say that the compressed signal sounds better to them, and therefore the ‘quality’ is higher. However, they would be 100% incorrect to say that the fidelity is better on the compressed signal.
-It’s good that you do not use the DSPs on your soundcard. These are mostly for the use of gamers and they will only colour the sound of music.
-With regards to sampling rates (this is a touchy subject in the audio community), I have the view that the best thing to do to the signal is to impact it the least. So, considering that standard audio is recorded at 44.1kHz, I use 44.1kHz as the sampling rate. Any higher than this is ‘oversampling’ and will not yield any real advantage over the normal rate. If you have something like a SACD that is actually recorded at 96kHz, then you’d be well-advised to up the sampling rate.
-I would strongly recommend easing out of computer speakers for your playback system. For what you get, they are exorbitantly priced compared to regular loudspeakers. My main problems with them are (1) terrible low frequency response (those computer ‘subwoofers’ are an insult to subwoofers everywhere) and (2) the cheap amplification stage built into the speaker. If you want a powered speaker, go for a powered monitor from Alesis, M-Audio or even something more high-end. Otherwise, I’d say get a pair of half-decent loudspeakers and an amp and just hook your PC into one of the amp’s auxiliary inputs. If your PC is far away, get an amp with a decent onboard DAC and send a digital signal to it. That way, you don’t have to worry about line noise along the length of your cable, since the signal is in the digital domain. However, I hesitate to tell you to use a digital signal in every case because there’s a possibility that your sound card has a better DAC than the amp.
-Given what good taste you have in music, I think you really owe it to yourself to get some good playback equipment. I would also avoid low-baud MP3s…and I cannot understand why any store would sell something like 128 kbps.
My vote would be for a pair of high-quality headphones. Headphones like my Sennheiser HD-650, or some of AKG’s or Grado’s high-end models, sound as good as speakers costing 10x more than they do. A good headphone + amp setup is by far the best bang for your buck. If you’re into woodworking at all, you can build yourself some good loudspeakers as a project; there’s all kinds of resources available. And you can even build your own amp, preamp, DAC and CD transport if you’re into electronics! I love the internet.