Billy 2.0 – What does a Cochlear Implant sound like?

I’d like to ask you a favour, if you’re reading this. Can you watch the video below, and tell me what speech and music sounds like to you in the comments section below?

There are several clips of speech and music – I’m assuming that the implant I am getting will be closest to the 20 channel samples you hear on the video.

This is an approximation of the sound of a cochlear implant using sound editing software.

Read the comments on the video here. A couple of CI users there who have said that they can hear a marked difference between ‘normal speech’ and that video!

What you may find is that if you listen to the video more than once, the speech and music becomes clearer each time. This is the brain ‘learning’ the sounds for you. This article explains how that works in more detail.

This link may also be interesting. PBS Video

I look forward to your thoughts.

32 Replies to “Billy 2.0 – What does a Cochlear Implant sound like?”

  1. There is a very significant difference, especially with the music. The difference is in the pitch. Both the voice and music are at one pitch, which means I’m using the rhythm to pick up on what is going on. To me, the voices sound like someone’s put a speaker under a load of plastic pellets and I’m hearing it through that: like a sort of rushing sound, which is more pronounced in the music.

    With the music I can’t make out any of the individual instruments: I can hear the rhythm, like I said, which means that what is a 20s-style bit of (I don’t know, jazz?) music sounds like rough modern dance music.

    It’s like the difference between, say, porridge and fruit salad. It’s still food, but it’s got the taste and variety (and much of the texture) taken away from it.

    However, if I’d never eaten anything in my entire life, I’d be pretty stoked with porridge. Ecstatic even. Make sure you get someone to film you when you get it turned on – and have fun!

  2. Different from real speech but the 20ch is understandable, it is kind of like sound going through a grungy distortion pedal (ok bad example considering you don’t know what that sounds like either) 20ch speech is a bit like the sound has been muffled and squashed with some of the high and low points missing.

    Music is awful I thought I was listing to some kind of trance through all the examples and then when I heard the real audio example I was quite surprised.

    I imagine that in a noisy environment it would be quite difficult to hear speech too unless you were looking directly at the person as background noise really distracts.

    would be interested to see how you get on with it, we have someone at work who has one and I have ordered a few gizmos to help them hear the phone correctly but I really have no idea if I am helping or just making fuzzy sound louder.

  3. Hi Billy

    The first time I heard the speech I could barely make out the 20 channel version, but on the second listen I can now ‘hear’ the words at 8 and 12 channels… I guess that’s me doing what you will need to do – learning how to interpret the sounds. On the third listen I could make out the words at 4 channels just about – it sounds like someone speaking in a hoarse whisper and with more channels it gets louder and clearer.

    The music sounds like water gushing around in intestines… and gets more interesting with more channels. The rhythm gets much more complex with more channels. On repeat listening I can begin to interpret when different instruments are being played.

    it’s very positive how quickly the brain begins to make sense of it all!

    1. The speech is pretty intelligible very quickly – you can obtain useful amounts of information (and pretty detailed information) from the rhythm alone. It’s why telephones (with their very limited frequency range) have always been perfectly adequate for talking. Multiple voices may be much harder work, especially when you have the higher frequencies of female or young voices at the same time as male voices with a lower pitch.

      Music is going to be problematic, as the complex tones and frequencies that make up most music will get squashed. However, a single voice singing a song will sound pretty accurate, and something rhythmic (like this ) will be astonishing.

  4. 1 Channel – Sounds like a dalek speakiing through a mic covered in sand – just noise
    4 Channel – Individual words can be discerned as separate sounds (though not parsed)
    8 Channel – Sounds like a child computer
    12 channel – Can now disern that it is a girl and she’s American.
    20 channel – Still sounds ‘rough’, but is clear enough.

  5. Hi Billy

    I found the music really difficult it did sound very techno and even 20 did not provide much of an insight in to the texture and variety of instruments – great for dancing though.

    Top end of the speech was good although it will still require concentration to get it all but very encouraging how clear it was. But background noise will make it more difficult but there is an awful lot there to work with.

  6. If I was liken the sound impairment to visual impairment. The 1 channel would be like looking through greaseproof paper . The 20 channel would be like looking through the bottom of a jam jar. I was really impressed with the quality of the 20 channel and you can easily make out the speech.

  7. I’d should verify with you here. Which is not one thing I often do! I enjoy reading a post that will make folks think. Also, thanks for permitting me to comment!

  8. you know when you feel vibrations with your fingers, and they go from really fine buzzy one to big thumpy-thumpy ones?

    Speech is like ear-fingers, but those buzzy buzzy sounds convey meaning depending on the modulation of the buzz

  9. It got understandable from the 8 channel ci onwards but the best was the 20 channel by far. They all sound pretty fuzzy to degrees, like a distorted whisper from a poltergeist film. The music had noticeable beats but this sample seemed a bit thrash metally….the actual music being far from it (gypsy violin ish?)

    definitely an improvement from profound deafness, especially the voice sample on 20 channel

  10. It was very whispery, and lacked a lot of the bass reverberations you get from the speaker’s chest cavity.

    A not on clarity: I wasn’t expecting the accent, so I had it pegged on the CI as “What kind of beat do you use to catch sound?”. This ties heavily into the brain mechanisms involved when learning a foreign language: because the words are unfamiliar, your brain (as a learner) is looking further down the sentence before it’s even spoken. This is all down to lexical chunks and contextualisation. I imagine that it’s the same for a CI: though the sounds may be strange at first I wouldn’t be surprised to be told that it very quickly takes near-zero effort to understand.

  11. understandable through 20 channel…somewhat distorted compared to ‘normal’ speech, but honestly I’d be very happy to live with that if it brought an improvement in my senses…incredible technology.

  12. Have you always been deaf? That might be a bit of a challenge to describe if so… can imagine it’s going to be a really weird experience for you.

    Agree with the others, though. Channel 20 is best. Hope it’s great for you.

    1. Born deaf, so I may not get quite as much out of it as someone who is deafened later in life.

      The first implants back in the 1980s only had one channel and speech wasn’t understandable. Current implants have around 22 channels on average so I’m quietly hopeful…

  13. Do you mean how close the CI versions sound to the actual speech/music?

    The speech is really good on the 20 Channel Cl version, quite clear and easily understandable.

    But that has a lot of echo (or possibly reverb, I’ve always got mixed up on those!)
    The 12 Channel sounds like a high pitched robot. Anything lower wasn’t really clear, but I guess combining it with lip reading would make an enormous difference.

    The music didn’t really work at all for me. There was a lot of noise/distortion on all versions.

  14. Just so you can make sense of what they’re talking about, the first quote is “what kind of bait do you use to catch salmon?” and the music is a a twiddly klezmer fiddle thing.

    As said above, with fewer channels, the speech is just buzzing crunches, at 20 it becomes clear, but slightly staccato, like an old film flickering compared to sight. Or, it’s (very) progressive rather than interlaced to make it film-relevant.

    With the speech, even allowing for the artificial slightly crunchy sound, it’s not natural and you lose nuance, but that kind of thing you should be able to pick up from lipreading cues (hint: CTLOE, if you’re not sure).

    The music, hmm. Even at 20 channels, it was like some crunchy Nine Inch Nails on smack sound. The synaesthesia thing it’s brought to mind is when you push your shoe along on tiny bits of broken glass, so you feel them turn and grind under your feet. Not entirely unpleasant, but nothing like the jolly fiddle music that it was attempting to interpret. However, I’m quite fond of breakbeat, so maybe it’s like an Autechre remix of everything you hear. You’ll have to tell me what Autechre sound like through it.

    Generally, though, I’m sure it’ll be a huge assist to lipreading, and add comedy value when you start throwing shapes and gurning when everyone’s singing Happy Birthday. Badly.

    1. Thanks for this!

      All the comments have been really helpful – and yes I’m aware of the contradiction of trying to explain what one thing sounds like to a deaf person..!

      The YouTube comments on that video are really interesting too – one from a CI user who can tell the difference between the different clips and says that the unedited clip sounds like normal speech… possibly the brain doing a lot of work in decoding those sounds.

      All part of narrowing down those known unknowns.

  15. Most people with a ci will try and explain what it sounds are like but others will say you don’t know until you have one! I am on week one three programming sessions in ,and speech and other sounds are echoey but getting better music I could nt hear before I am starting to make out a base beat and some sound.
    It all depends on your hearing and your experience cis are very individual and everyone’s experience is different .

  16. I have a CI and I hear much more clearly than any of those recordings. Listening on a laptop the sound is distorted anyway.
    When I first had a CI it sounded as if I had a badly tuned radio in my head, then it cleared as I got used to it. Each visit to the audiologist gave a new map and more depth and range of sound.
    You can never guess what a CI will sound like to you. When I went for mine I would have been happy to have electronic noises forever as long as I could join in conversations. What I have has surpassed my expectations by many a mile.

  17. I’ve done these studies before – there’s a few of them out there on the web – and my experience here is the same as with the others. I’d always say that the hearing I experience is closest to the ‘normal hearing’ sample even though my experience is that of the 20-channel average!

    The thing is, the sound sampled through 1/4/8/12/20 channels is just a snapshot and takes no account of how far down the line the implant user is or how they have adapted to the sound received through the implant.

    For the record, I’m ‘early deafened’ with no memory of natural hearing, a period of aided hearing in childhood, followed by 30 years of nothing. I was surprised at how much I remembered and how normal it felt. Yes, it sounded electronic at first but not any more.

    The best description I can come up with is that hearing with a CI is in a class of its own. It’s not like aided hearing, it’s not normal hearing, even if what you get is pretty close, it’s not like being hard-of-hearing, or anything like that: it’s something else.

    1. Wow – that’s the most succinct explanation yet. I must admit, reading all these comments and responses has made me even more curious about what the implant will be like…

  18. the 20 speech is very understandable just sounds slightly squeaky like a very small person speaking. The natural sound was a child/young person so it was more accurate than I thought it would be. It sounds like it has an electronic effect on it – like a drawing with several lines in parallel drawing the outline instead of a simple one pencil mark. The music sounded more challenging until I realised it was a nasty piece of music anyway. Some crap electronic music sounds like that already so if you get into experimental goth underground music you’ll be right in there. It’s really pretty good. This thing is going to blow your head off young William. Exciting. Film your face!

    1. Back in the days before I met Cathy, a young Portuguese girl called Juliette invited me to an Autechre concert. I never went. It could all have been so different. xx

  19. You will totally love Autechre. It’s great for cleaning the house to. I should say that you can hear the melody in that clip so once your brain cleans it up a bit you’ll be totally whistling the tune. And of course then you won’t be able to stop it replaying in your head all day. ‘The birdy song’, that’s going to drive you nuts, and that Orville song – a never ending nightmare. There was a buddhist in my group who went off to meditate, his hut was by a stream and the rhythm of the water was playing tunes in his head, eventually he lost the plot and found himself knee deep in the river trying to rearrange the rocks to change the tune! I never understand how there can be so many tunes in the world and people are still inventing new ones. Like the lottery numbers – after the event they seem so obvious and you think ‘I could have guessed them!’, tunes are wierd things to me. But then I’m as musical as a brick.
    I’m excited Willy.

  20. I was very surprised to find how different the music was….the speech to me sounds like a robot or an alien even at 20 channels but at least it is understandable; I could easily understand what the people were saying…the music however, to my ears was completely different; even the 20channel version to me didn’t sound anything like the original. I’d be interested to know what your experiences are as I know somebody else who recently had a CI. I would expect that it would be very helpful for hearing surrounding noises (e.g. door bells, alarms, etc) and helpful if somebody is trying to get your attention but I’m sure that you are so used to other ways of communicating you’ll end up reverting back to them and it will be difficult to adjust to.

  21. Interestingly the 20 channel music sounds similar to the way I hear music at gigs when they’re too loud. When I put my fingers in my ears, or wear earplugs, it clears up and I can perceive pitch/lyrics/timbre properly again. I have no diagnosed deafness, but I suppose this intolerance to loudness must have a name.

    1. That’s strange. I’m making a special about Lord Jack Ashley of Stoke, who had a cochlear implant. He described it as sounding like a Dalek with laryngitis..!

  22. Thought comments from DeafLinquist to be really helpful. Agree with other comments that speech is impressive but music initially disappointing.
    Looking forward to getting the guitar out though!
    When you were diagnosed as deaf I asked the consultant to show me what you could hear and he put me on headphones and spoke – have to say that if CI works it will be a different world – especially as it will augment your lipreading skills.
    Would be interested to hear what unaccompanied singing by someone with clear, pure pitch would sound like on 20 channel (First Aid Kit comes to mind)
    Autechre video makes the point that you will have visual clues in any live or video music performance – and perhaps your formal music training will pay off too?
    Reference to the Buddhist in the stream also relevant – meditation to develop mindfulness might also help to understand how CI develops or changes your mind and awareness….exciting journey ahead.

  23. I have booked another hearing test for next week, as I am having trouble with some tones. I found these very difficult and yes, they did improve a little with learning by re-listening, but doesn’t that apply to most things? As a mother of teens though, I am not sure if this is a good thing or not!

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