What Does a Cochlear Implant Sound Like?

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Cochlear implants are one of the only medical devices in the world that help restore a sense—the sense of hearing. But what do cochlear implants actually sound like?

There’s lots of conflicting information out there. Some cochlear implant users describe their hearing as sounding normal. Others describe it as tinny or even robotic.

There are even videos and sound samples that try to simulate the sound of cochlear implants. But extensive research shows that these don’t match real user experience. Far from it.[ft] [ft]

In fact, with the right cochlear implant, you can experience sounds as they are meant to be heard and enjoy the closest to natural hearing possible.
 
“I have never found a CI simulation that even comes close to how I hear with my CIs. I think the simulations all sound robotic and lacking in full tones.”

Mary Beth
Bilateral Cochlear Implant Recipient

 
 
“If you Google ‘cochlear implant simulation’, you’ll find noise-band vocoders. I’m pleased to say that a cochlear implant does not sound like a vocoder. It would be painful if you had to listen to something like a vocoder all your life. No, it doesn’t sound like a noise vocoder or a sine vocoder, thankfully.”

Prof. Michael Dorman[ft]
Cochlear Implant Researcher

 
 
“I tell people how utterly stunning the sound of cicadas at night are. How sweet it is to be able to hear the sound of the leaves rustling. How fascinating it is to listen to a puppy’s sleepy breathing. All those boring everyday sounds that people take for granted, they are breathtaking.”

Matt
Cochlear Implant Recipient

 
Closest to Natural Hearing

Our Philosophy: Closest to Natural Hearing

More natural hearing doesn’t just mean a more enjoyable sound quality. It also helps your brain understand and comprehend complex sounds more easily. This can make it easier to take part in group conversations or hear better in noisy restaurants.[ft] [ft]

Closest to natural hearing gives you:

  • More natural sound quality
  • The full potential of the natural cochlea
  • More natural music quality
  • Better hearing in quiet and noise
  • Less reliance on adaptation
  • Improved sound localization

That’s why our philosophy at MED-EL is to provide the closest to natural hearing with our cochlear implants. We want the sound quality of our cochlear implants to match the sound quality of natural hearing.

To achieve this, we’ve spent more than 30 years developing unique technologies that no other cochlear implant system can match. How? By designing our cochlear implants to follow nature as closely as possible.[ft] [ft] [ft] [ft] [ft] [ft] [ft] [ft] [ft] [ft] [ft]

“My ideal cochlear implant would be one that the hearing experience is so natural that a recipient does not ‘realize’ they have an implant.”

Dr. Peter Nopp
Director of Sound Coding Research, MED-EL

Closest to Natural Hearing

How Do We Replicate Natural Hearing?

Our cochlear implants mimic “natural” hearing so you can experience sounds as they are meant to be heard. This is possible because of technologies unique to MED-EL’s cochlear implant: long electrode arrays and FineHearing sound coding. Together, they deliver exceptional sound quality and superior hearing performance.

In natural hearing, sound vibrations travel to the inner ear—the cochlea—which is lined with thousands of tiny hair cells. These hair cells turn the vibrations into nerve signals and send them to your brain. If these hair cells don’t work, it causes sensorineural hearing loss.

That’s where a cochlear implant system comes in. It consists of an audio processor 1, which sits on your ear, and the cochlear implant itself 2. They work together to bypass those non-functioning hair cells and sends sound signals to your brain.

Closest to Natural Hearing

How Hearing Works

How a Cochlear Implant Works

Closest to Natural Hearing

Why Is Choosing the Right Cochlear Implant So Important?

What is the most important factor in sound quality of a cochlear implant system? You might think it’s the audio processor, the part that is worn on your ear, because that has the microphones and “processes” the sounds. However, the audio processor is just the first part of the chain of hearing.

The truth is that every single sound you hear through a cochlear implant goes through the tiny electrode array that is implanted in your cochlea. This intricate bridge between technology and nature is the point where sounds flow from an electronic implant system to your natural hearing pathways.

This is why having the right implant and the right electrode array is such an essential factor in what a cochlear implant will sound like. The more natural this connection in your cochlea is, the more natural your hearing experience can be.

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Closest to Natural Hearing

How Electrode Arrays Copy Natural Hearing

But why is the electrode array such an important part of your cochlear implant? It’s the foundation of every single sound that you’ll hear through it. In natural hearing, sounds travel up the entire length of the cochlea, all the way to the tip. There is no specific “hearing zone” because the whole cochlea is used for hearing. Each tone and each frequency (pitch) has its specific place along the cochlea—high pitches at the base of the cochlea and low tones towards the tip of the cochlear.[ft]

To properly mimic natural hearing, that electrode array needs to be able to stimulate the full length of the cochlea, and each tone at the right place. If only part of the cochlea is stimulated, then many mid and lower-pitched sounds will sound different because tones are not represented at their natural place.[ft] [ft] [ft]

Because we use nature as our blueprint, we also design our electrode arrays to reach towards the tip of the cochlea, up to 720°. This means you can enjoy the full range of sound—from low pitches like dogs barking to high pitches like birds chirping. In contrast, other cochlear implant companies use short electrode arrays that can only stimulate the first turn of the cochlea (up to 450°), sometimes marketed as the hearing zone.[ft] [ft] [ft]

If a cochlear implant just ignored all the frequencies it could not reach, you would be missing so many sounds in everyday life, for example, the dog's bark at 300 Hz. Instead, these systems simply shift all the missing sounds into the part of the cochlea they can reach. That means the dog's bark would be much higher pitched, closer to 800 Hz.

A significant upshift in frequencies often causes sounds to be “tinny”, meaning that they sound thin, metallic, and lacking depth. This is because the lower frequencies that created the depth and body of sounds are lost.[ft] [ft] [ft] [ft] [ft]

Closest to Natural Hearing

Sound Coding That Follows Nature

The other technique behind closest to natural hearing? Our unique FineHearing sound coding technology.

In natural hearing, the hair cells respond to sound in a different way in the second turn of the cochlea to the first turn. Because other companies only have short electrodes, they can’t even cover the second turn of the cochlea so don’t use this different type of stimulation.

But at MED-EL, we always want to offer a more natural hearing experience. So not only do our electrodes stimulate this second turn, but our FineHearing sound coding ensures that it follows nature too.

By combining long electrode arrays with FineHearing, you get a more accurate and more natural stimulation of the whole cochlea. This is designed to give the closest to natural hearing experience with a cochlear implant.

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”Immediately loved the sound. . .vocals much more clear and resonant. More natural sound. Less fatigue from MED-EL because guessing less.”

Cochlear implant recipient describing sound quality through their MED-EL implant with a long electrode array.[ft]

“More robotic, tinny and echoey. Cannot differentiate different individuals’ voices as well because more metallic sound. Sounds like a distorted microphone.”

Same recipient describing their other ear implanted with a short Cochlear-brand electrode array.[ft]

Closest to Natural Hearing

What Does a MED-EL Cochlear Implant Sound Like?

So what does all this technology mean for MED-EL cochlear implant recipients? And how close to natural is their hearing experience? We asked more than 100 MED-EL CI users to rate how much they agree with the following statements, on a scale from 0/10 = “strongly disagree” to 10/10 = “strongly agree”. You can see their combined ratings below.[ft]

Using the Phone

7.5/10

I hear well on the phone with my audio processor.

7.6/10

I am confident using the phone with my audio processor.

Listening to Music

7.5/10

Music sounds natural to me.

7.7/10

I enjoy listening to music with my cochlear implant system.

Following Conversations

8.1/10

Speech sounds natural to me and is understandable.

8.9/10

Listening to a person in a quiet environment does not require a lot of concentration.

7.2/10

When background noise is present, I am able to follow a conversation (e.g. at a party/in a restaurant).

Overall Hearing Experience

8.0/10

Please rate the sound quality your audio processor, for example in music, outdoors, or in a conversation.

Real Life Experiences

As you can see, cochlear implants can provide so much more than just being able to understand words. With MED-EL, your cochlear implant can mean enjoying a lively conversation, picking up the phone with confidence, and rediscovering the music you love.

Experiencing more natural hearing can help restore your freedom to live independently, your confidence to face new challenges, and the happiness of truly reconnecting with your friends and family.

medel_2020_eye5_danielzangerl_487

Why MED-EL: A Lifetime of Hearing

Why choose MED-EL? As we’ve seen, when it comes to sound quality, our unique closer to natural philosophy sets MED-EL apart from any other cochlear implant system.

But there are so many more reasons why our recipients love their MED-EL implant systems: proven reliability, wireless connectivity, wireless charging, bimodal matching, all-in-one audio processors, and much more.

  • Closest to natural hearing experience
  • Proven reliability
  • Caring partner for life
Most importantly, we will always be here to support you. At MED-EL, we understand an implant is a choice for life, so we are committed to always being there for you.
Closest to Natural Hearing

Here With You

We understand that hearing loss can be difficult for you and your whole family. That’s why we are committed to supporting you on every step of your journey.

Our dedicated community outreach team members will personally provide step-by-step guidance and answer any questions you have.

We can help you find nearby clinics that specialize in cochlear implants. Our experts can help you navigate questions about insurance coverage and reimbursement. We’ll connect you with cochlear implant recipients and local community events where you can learn more about what everyday life is like with a cochlear implant.

Let us know how we can help you as you take the next steps. Our local support team will get back to you within 24 hours to answer any questions you have. We look forward to hearing from you.

About MED-EL

At MED-EL, we’ve been connecting families with life-changing hearing implants for more than 30 years. When our founders set out to create the first modern cochlear implant, their goal was to overcome hearing loss as a barrier to communication and quality of life. Today we’ve grown to more than 2,000 employees covering over 120 countries, and we’re still guided by the steadfast principles of our founders.

We’ve always been scientists at heart. Nearly 40 years ago, our founders Ingeborg and Erwin Hochmair changed the world when they invented the modern microelectronic multichannel cochlear implant. Their pioneering spirit and passion for discovery has always defined MED-EL.

Our dedicated support network and local care specialists ensure our recipients are always well cared for. And when we create new technology, we make sure it’s compatible with earlier implants so that everyone can benefit. With MED-EL, our recipients know they can always count on us for a lifetime of better hearing.

When you’re ready to take the next step, we’ll be here with you every step of the way.