To Hans Wetzel,
First let me say I've enjoyed GoodSound! for years. I no longer have a traditional stereo system; I've scaled back and now listen to music primarily on my computer. I have a Dell laptop, which is reasonably new and fast (for the time being). I'm currently using a pair of M-Audio AV 30 speakers.
I'm looking to improve my setup's sound. Where is the best place to start: speakers, DAC, etc.? I don't want to just throw money at it. I want to get the most bang for, say, $200-$300 or so.
Thanks again for your publication, and sensibilities on getting a lot for a little!
Thanks for the kind words about GoodSound! You are far from alone in primarily using a computer for your musical needs. That said, there are numerous directions you could go to maximize your sound quality for a modest sum.
Upgrading your speakers would be my first suggestion. While I have never personally heard the M-Audio AV 30, it looks to be a step up from more traditional and widely available computer speakers. With that in mind, to improve on the M-Audios might require a slightly larger outlay. For $398/pair, the NHT SuperPowers marry the pedigree of NHT's SuperZero 2.0s, which Roger Kanno favorably reviewed last fall, with built-in amplifiers for use as computer speakers. Another option would be Audioengine's $399/pair A5+, which I am very fond of. I suspect they don't quite match the NHTs for out-and-out resolution, but they more than make up for it with larger bass drivers, multiple inputs, all the wiring you could possibly need and a handy remote control. Both NHT and Audioengine sell matching subwoofers for their speakers should you crave a more full-range setup going forward. Orb Audio's Mod1s are another option, though I suspect they would be something of a lateral move from your M-Audio AV 30s.
Once you are happy with your speakers, I would suggest investing in a small digital-to-analog converter (DAC), of which there are many available for around $300. Audioengine, AudioQuest, CEntrance, Emotiva and Musical Fidelity are good companies to start with, but, frankly, most any DAC should noticeably improve the quality of sound coming from your Dell laptop.
I hope this helps, and let us know if we can be of further assistance! . . . Hans Wetzel