A not so short introduction
The PC sound card world is an interesting place. In the early 1990s, the only sound cards gamers wanted were the 8-bit Sound Blaster and 8-bit stereo Sound Blaster Pro. The question was never which sound card to buy, but which Sound Blaster.
This quickly changed with the introduction of 16-bit audio, and by the mid 1990s, the sound card world had completely changed. There was the Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum 16 which had an on-board amplifier that drove my non-powered JBL bookshelf speakers almost as loud as today's Klipsch ProMedia's (albeit with more hiss), the Sound Blaster 16 SCSI-2 ASP had its on-board full-speed 16-bit Adaptec SCSI-2 adapter and a nifty ASP chip for QSound stereo expansion, and for all the really cool people, there was the Gravis Ultrasound which introduced wavetable to the masses and pioneered the principle of storing instrument samples in system RAM and the philosophy of community support for programming hobbyists, particularly the European demo scene.
Media Vision folded after it was discovered that upper management had lied in their SEC filings, leaving the engineers to take the remains of the company and start Aureal. Creative Labs came out with the AWE32 sound card which brought on-board samples for MIDI and for a short period of time, Gravis had the AMD Interwave soundchip powering their Ultrasound PnP. For reasons too complex to detail here, Gravis eventually retreated to their expertise in gaming controllers, leaving the high-end gaming sound card market to Creative Labs. It was then that the AWE64 was released, introducing software wavetable synthesis and once again we returned to an era where the question for gamers was not which sound card, but which Sound Blaster.
3D audio arrives
Things changed in 1997 when Diamond introduced the Monster Sound, the first PCI 3D positional audio accelerator. With the support of DirectX5, the Aureal Vortex and Creative Labs PCI sound cards powered by Ensoniq's chips quickly grew in popularity. 1998 brought us the introduction of the Sound Blaster Live! and Aureal Vortex2-powered Diamond Monster Sound MX300. With the promise of high-quality 3D positional audio and abundance of hardware accelerated audio streams, it was then, perhaps, where we enjoyed a renaissance in PC audio with manufacturers fighting for the hearts of all gamers. In 1999, FiringSquad had nine sound card reviews and there was so much competition against Creative Labs and Aureal that we were even so bold as to claim that "alternative was in."
The cards of 1999
Everything fell apart in 2000 and Y2K wasn't the culprit. Aureal folded and the ESS Canyon3D chipset used in the Terratec SoundSystem DMX and Diamond Monster Sound MX400 went from a most promising challenger to a complete failure. Many gamers made a switch to Windows 2000 as their primary operating system only to find that Aureal and ESS did not have full-featured driver solutions and the fixes promised "in the next driver revision" never materialized. Throughout all of 2000 the Sound Blaster Live! remained largely unchanged from the original design released in 1998. Unless one had a strict budget, there question was no longer which sound card, but which Sound Blaster Live! and whether one needed 5.1 analog output or not. The most complex of dilemmas would come if digital I/O was necessary where the decision was then between Creative Labs' Live! Drive II or Hoontech's aftermarket upgrades.
At the very end of last year, there seemed to be a revival with the introduction of Philips' Acoustic Edge, the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz, and VideoLogic Sonic Fury twins. Today, another sound card has entered the fray, the Hercules Game Theater XP.