Jay I added user to operator group, it changed none of the above, so I removed it from operator again.
Here is a quick table of the behaviour:
# mplayer has no sound, video is fine
# mplayer has VERY choppy sound, video struggles with it
# mplayer works great, just like I would expect it to
that's as root. as user:
$ no sound, video is fine
$ very choppy sound and video struggles, same as root
$ no sound, video is fine-- user can't use rsnd/0
if I add user to operator, all of that is the same.
When I ran userinfo $user, it listed operator under groups. I was pretty sure I added it properly, but I thought I'd add this.