As I remember:
hw directly accesses the card, which does plughw. But: If you have say a 
four-channel card configured at 48kHz, the player will try to open four 
channels at 48kHz.
  Where plughw, does some automatic conversion. i don't know, if it also looks 
up the number of channels, and only opens say two channels for a stereo file. 
But at least it converts sampling rates. so you don't need to worry about the 
SR of your audio-files and the SR of the card.
  In most cases I found plughw to be the better choice. The best choice was 
always to have some pcm-plugins defined. This is asoundrc-magic, but it works 
  Kindest regards

Music was my first love and it will be my last (John Miles)

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