Well, unfortunately, it looks like I spoke too soon again. After a reboot, I noticed stuttering happening again. But at least some progress has been made. Why don't we start fresh? Let me show the new output of inxi -Fxz now with the BIOS update and new kernel version reflected. Again, everything down to audio has been included:
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System: Host: 123PC Kernel: 4.13.0-21-generic x86_64 (64 bit gcc: 5.4.0)
Desktop: MATE 1.14.1 (Gtk 3.18.9-1ubuntu3.3)
Distro: Linux Mint 18 Sarah
Machine: Mobo: HP model: 2B4B v: 1.04 Bios: AMI v: A0.57 date: 08/09/2017
CPU: Quad core Intel Core i7-6700 (-HT-MCP-) cache: 8192 KB
flags: (lm nx sse sse2 sse3 sse4_1 sse4_2 ssse3 vmx) bmips: 27264
clock speeds: max: 4000 MHz 1: 3400 MHz 2: 3400 MHz 3: 3400 MHz
4: 3400 MHz 5: 3400 MHz 6: 3400 MHz 7: 3400 MHz 8: 3400 MHz
Graphics: Card: NVIDIA GM204 [GeForce GTX 970] bus-ID: 01:00.0
Display Server: X.Org 1.18.4 drivers: (unloaded: fbdev,vesa) FAILED: nouveau
GLX Renderer: Gallium 0.4 on NV124
GLX Version: 3.0 Mesa 11.2.0 Direct Rendering: Yes
Audio: Card-1 NVIDIA GM204 High Definition Audio Controller
driver: snd_hda_intel bus-ID: 01:00.1
Card-2 Intel Sunrise Point-H HD Audio
driver: snd_hda_intel bus-ID: 00:1f.3
Sound: Advanced Linux Sound Architecture v: k4.13.0-21-generic
I did further testing to rule out network issues. I played an audio file stored locally, and the stuttering was still there. This rules out the possibility of a network problem (e.g. router or connection) and Firefox being the cause.
Based on thx-1138's suggestions, I updated everything possible in Update Manager, including levels 4 and 5. There was a bunch of mesa stuff, but nothing involving pulseaudio. I still updated everything just in case something was relevant though.
Despite all this, the stuttering is still there. What other factors could be causing this? I've already risked having to reinstall my entire operating system by installing a kernel not officially supported by Mint (though I later removed it when it didn't fix the problem), so I do want this fixed pretty badly.
This time, I'm going to test for many hours and across reboots before I say this is solved.
Edit: I have a new theory. I don't think I was imagining things when I ran the 40-minute test. I don't think there were any problems with my sound during that test. However, I do system updates on a regular basis, and I can't rule out that I updated something between the stutter-free test and the time the stuttering returned.
My theory is that updates may be causing sound to break; that some kernel versions work and others don't. Assuming updates cause the problem to come back, what kinds of updates might be the culprit? If I find that a kernel update is the problem, should I just stick to a working kernel version rather than always chasing the latest supported official kernel, or could newer non-kernel software eventually cause the same problem due to incompatibility with an older kernel? I guess I'm trying to figure out if the kernel alone could be the problem, or whether other a combination of other software and the kernel may be to blame.