The audio controllers supplied with most new computers are entirely adequate for listening to MP3 files, podcasts, streaming Internet radio stations, and most of the other sound files that people play through their computers. They're also fine for recording MP3 files and Webcasts, and transferring vinyl records and cassettes to audio CDs, or storing them on a hard drive. With a good set of stand-alone speakers or a connection to a high-fidelity home entertainment system, you can enjoy sound from your computer that is comparable to FM radio or your audio CD collection.
Of course, the quality of the playback is limited by the technical quality of the source material; a heavily compressed MP3 music download doesn't have the same dynamic range or sound as the same song on a commercial CD.
The audio processors on a typical computer motherboard or a Sound Blaster card are not as good as the equipment in a professional recording studio. For serious recording, and for archival-quality audio preservation, you want a separate analog-to-digital (AtoD) converter, either on a special expansion card or an external device that connects to the computer through a USB or FireWire port, or through a PC Card adapter.
Speakers for computer systems can range from inexpensive (less than $10) units with sound comparable to a table radio, to high-fidelity products that can cost $200 or more. Once you move beyond the low-end speakers, which may be just fine for speech and MP3 music downloads, the only way to make a rational choice is to listen to them and decide which ones you like best. Because the acoustics of your computer room contribute to the character of the listening experience, you should expect your dealer to let you try speakers on your own system and allow you to return them if you don't like the way they sound.
See Chapter 13 for more detailed information about selecting and using a sound card and speakers for your computer.