Conventional wisdom dictates that imaging hardware should be optimized by use of an ideal observer (IO) that exploits full statistical knowledge of the class of objects to be imaged, without consideration of the reconstruction method to be employed. However, accurate and tractable models of the complete object statistics are often difficult to determine in practice. Moreover, in imaging systems that employ compressive sensing concepts, imaging hardware and (sparse) image reconstruction are innately coupled technologies. We have previously proposed a sparsity-driven ideal observer (SDIO) that can be employed to optimize hardware by use of a stochastic object model that describes object sparsity. The SDIO and sparse reconstruction method can therefore be "matched" in the sense that they both utilize the same statistical information regarding the class of objects to be imaged. To efficiently compute SDIO performance, the posterior distribution is estimated by use of computational tools developed recently for variational Bayesian inference. Subsequently, the SDIO test statistic can be computed semi-analytically. The advantages of employing the SDIO instead of a Hotelling observer are systematically demonstrated in case studies in which magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data acquisition schemes are optimized for signal detection tasks.