These days most motherboards are produced with onboard sound cards making it easier on system builders. While today’s onboard audio is generally pretty good quality, true sound aficionados will upgrade to a higher quality third-party sound card.
Creative has been making sound cards for over 25 years and is by far the most popular third-party manufacturer. However, their popularity is probably due more to marketing than sound quality. There are other less well known manufacturers that make very high quality sound cards and audio interfaces for the PC.
Creative’s recent offerings have improved a great deal and are an excellent choice if you all want to do is listen to MP3’s and stream audio from the Internet. However, if you want to record high quality audio into your computer, such as recording musical instruments and such, then you’ll want to step up to one of the higher quality audio cards offered by manufacturers such as M-audio, Auzentech, Turtle Beach, and a few others.
M-audio makes a variety of audio interfaces ranging from the Audiophile 2496 for about $100 to the top of the line Delta 1010 for about $700. The former is an easy way to upgrade your Windows or Mac integrated audio to a professional level audio interface capable of making professional level recordings. It is also an excellent choice for simply upgrading the sound output of your computer for listening to music files. It offers gold plated RCA jacks and a breakout cable for digital S/PDIF and MIDI connections. I also think it offers better sound than Creative’s top of the line X-FI series for about half the cost. A copy of Ableton Live Lite music production software is included as a bonus.
If you’re just getting into the world of audio recording and production you owe it to yourself to check out the entire M-audio line of audio interfaces, with the Audiophile 2496 as an excellent starting point.