I once invested in a Soundblaster X-fi to "improve" on a realtek audio chipset included with my Asus motherboard. It was not much of an improvement, and in hindsight, I actually preferred the onboard solution to the new card. Mainly, the X-fi sounded about the same with its "enhancements" disabled. The enhancements really sound like crap through quality headphones or speakers. Most new laptops, especially more premium models, use very good sound solutions which do justice to better speaker setups.
I advocate passing on most headphone DAC/Amp solutions, since many are not really an upgrade, in my opinion, whether under "real world" listening or on instrumented testing. At best, they match existing capabilities and at worst, they can be inferior. Even basic computer audio is set up these days for "HD" sources like DVD and Blu-Ray listening, and I have seen a lot of testing results suggesting excellent frequency response and S/N ratios. If there is a problem, it seems to be that many on board solutions are not set up to drive high impedance headphones or headphones requiring a lot of current. Many high end cards use opamps that are not optimized for "typical" 16-32 ohm headphones which are very common. Therefore, finding a good amp is apparently a good idea if you have invested in expensive phones that likely run at higher impedance or which expect more power.
I would say the same of many OEM car stereos vs. aftermarket solutions. Unless you are willing to buy great speakers, good amps, and a capable deck ($500 - $1,000 minimum probably), many newer OEM systems are getting to a point where they are hard to beat. This is especially true considering the added cost and complexity of a good installation (as many OEM systems are increasingly integrated into the cars decor and other electronics). You really should proceed with caution and a fat wallet if you really want to get to the next level. That said, a good pair of components, an 8 inch JL audio sub, and a deck with time alignment and a few other key features is bringing a lot of joy to me these days. But it is quite obvious that OEM speaker system makers are paying attention to frequency response, staging, and imaging. On occasion, they are coming with good power and higher quality drivers as well. But they are only as good as the auto manufacturer lets them be, as they are typically forced to work under major cost restraints. They also have to provide "mass appeal" to a range of potential listeners. The great advantage of the aftermarket will always be in allowing let you tailor the sound to a greater extent.
The same is true of computer audio. I have poured $300 into dedicated headphone amps and DACs at this point and find that it has been a good idea for my HE-400s, which like the extra power and can make use of the higher performance DAC. In my opinion, great performance should be possible for a lot less. But generally speaking, I wouldn't spend that much when using $200-$400 dollar phones (as I am!). It is almost always best to blow half or more of your budget on the speakers, and spend the rest on the power you need, and the features that make a difference. So much of audio is just fluff and BS these days.
Over many years of loving audio and experimenting with phones', home theater, and car audio, the lesson over and over has been that nothing changes the sound more than the speakers themselves. That is almost always where the majority of the money should go. I guess that means that modern electronics are typically highly capable and far from the "crap" that used to be out there.
Edited by MrMateoHead - 1/7/13 at 8:29pm