1. Does pulseaudio start if started from the commandline as a normal user (pulseaudio --start)?
2. Once that's working, see if your players can access the pulse device. install mplayer, and play something: mplayer -ao pulse <some audio>. You should get no error and mplayer will tell you it is using the pulse device.
3. If that is done, you can start pulseaudio at startup with pulseaudio --system. This will start pulse as root and then transfer to the pulse user. Make sure the pulse user has appropriate permissions and belongs to the audio/pulse-access//pulse groups. Add the following to rc.local
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/usr/bin/pulseaudio --log-target=syslog --system
4. Reboot and check everything is working again. This is your basic pulse setup.
5. Once that is working, edit /etc/pulse/default.pa to load the following modules (on your laptop and on the pi). Amend the 192.168.0.0/24 to suit your local network IPs.
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load-module module-native-protocol-tcp auth-ip-acl=127.0.0.1;192.168.0.0/24 auth-anonymous=1
Make sure avahi daemon is running on the pi and your laptop.
6. It would make things easy if you can start a X session, because you can then open pulseaudio volume control and pulseaudio preferences.
7. On your laptop (Not the Pi), open pulseaudio preferences, click on the network tab and check "enable network access to local sound devices".
8. On the pi, open pulseaudio preferences. On the Network Access tab, check the first box (make discoverable pulseaudio network sound devices available locally)
9. Play something through vlc.
10. Open pulseaudio volume control. On the playback tab, you should see a box next to the vlc sound stream. Click on that and you should be able to select your laptop's sound card. If you dont see it, open pulseaudio preference again and uncheck/check the checkbox in 8. above.
After all that, you will discover that it is quite impossible to listen to the music because it keeps stuttering. When you get to that point, open /etc/pulse/daemon.conf and try adjusting the default-fragments and default-fragment-size options. Spend a lot of time doing this with no effect (or if you are lucky, get it all working). If it doesnt, make the decision to drop pulseaudio streaming and find a better solution (using DLNA maybe). Enjoy.