PulseAudio is a network-capable sound server program distributed via the freedesktop.org project. It runs mainly on Linux, various BSD distributions such as FreeBSD and OpenBSD, macOS, as well as Illumos distributions and the Solaris operating system. Microsoft Windows was previously supported via the MinGW toolchain (implementation of the GNU toolchain, which includes various tools such as GCC and Binutils). The Windows port has not been updated since 2011, however.
PulseAudio is free and open-source software and is licensed under the terms of the GNU Lesser General Public License version 2.1.
It was created in 2004 under the name Polypaudio but was renamed in 2006 to PulseAudio.
In broad terms, ALSA is the sound hardware driver and PulseAudio is the interface engine between Applications and ALSA.
PulseAudio acts as a sound server, where a background process accepting sound input from one or more sources (processes, capture devices, etc.) is created. The background process then redirects these sound sources to one or more sinks (sound cards, remote network PulseAudio servers, or other processes).
One of the goals of PulseAudio is to reroute all sound streams through it, including those from processes that attempt to directly access the hardware (like legacy OSS applications). PulseAudio achieves this by providing adapters to applications using other audio systems, like aRts and ESD.
In a typical installation scenario under Linux, the user configures ALSA to use a virtual device provided by PulseAudio. Thus, applications using ALSA will output sound to PulseAudio, which then uses ALSA itself to access the real sound card. PulseAudio also provides its own native interface to applications that want to support PulseAudio directly, as well as a legacy interface for ESD applications, making it suitable as a drop-in replacement for ESD.
For OSS applications, PulseAudio provides the padsp utility, which replaces device files such as /dev/dsp, tricking the applications into believing that they have exclusive control over the sound card. In reality, their output is rerouted through PulseAudio.