Digital audio output for a Laptop?

I am currently owner of a Logitech z-5400 set. When I am in my dorm room I use an optical audio connection between my computer and the system (usually computer -> mixamp -> system, but the mixamp broke >.<). However on the Z-5400 there is a way to connect an ipod to the sound system using a male to male 3.5mm headphone jack. I never really have used this.

I offered up my sound system to throw a party at a friends house last night hoping it'd be absolutely AWESOME because this system is quite amazing for the money you pay for it. No one that he knew or I knew had a laptop with a digital audio output, so we just hooked up the ipod using the aforementioned method.

Now, I started playing music during the day, and I was HIGHLY disappointed in the sound. I didn't know what was going on but the sound seemed... minuscule...from what I was used too. Regardless, we unplugged 2 of the speakers and added 2 other monstrous speakers from the DJ who lived downstairs and we still had a bumping night.

I took the speakers back to my dorm the other day and experimented and after some toying around I realized...the audio output of the optical cable provided audio that was 3-4 times louder than when I used the simple headphone jack.

With this in mind I quickly started searching online to find a way to get a Digital audio output for any laptop. I know there are $20-40 USB-S/PDIF devices, but I hear they are very...well not so great. The next step up is spending $100-200 on a quality converter, but I don't have that sort of money.

Is there any solid converters that cost below $40-50 or another way of doing it other than through USB? I'm unsure of where to go on this or how to do it.
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  1. Update on this if anyone's read it - my friend said it is not possible for an optical audio connection and a headphone jack connection to be different in noise levels. Sound quality? Very much so, but not noise levels like this. With that said, he mentioned that it's possible the jack has come loose inside the control unit with the headphone plugin. Can anyone vouch that that is a possibility or is he totally off?

    Thanks for any possible help someone may give me!
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