What Does a Cochlear Implant Sound Like?

It has been almost 7 years since I received my Cochlear Implant.  However, it seems just like yesterday.  I can still remember every detail from the time of surgery, to my first activation, and all the steps along the way to the restoration of my hearing.

I was not always deaf.  I was born with normal hearing.  I did not have meningitis, nor do I have any family history of hearing loss.  The only thing notable thing in my clinical history was that I had a series of painful ear infections.  It is likely one of those infections that caused the damage to my inner ear.

I began using hearing aids at the age of 5.  Over time, my hearing continued to worsen.  By the time I was in high school, my hearing loss was moderate-severe.  In University, my loss was in the severe range.  Interestingly, I did not begin using an FM system until my third year of University.  I simply did not know such devices even existed. I wish I was made aware of FM systems earlier, as I suffered academically from not hearing well.  In high school with smaller class sizes, I was an Honour Role student.  But in first year University, my average dropped to 60% and my initial hopes for studying Medicine were dashed.

I vowed to ensure that all people with hearing loss become fully informed of all the hearing devices or other forms of help that are available.  I did not want to see others struggle needlessly from hearing loss.  Thus, I decided to pursue studying Audiology and make this my personal mission.

But back to my original story about my CI.  Even though my loss was now in the severe range, hearing aids and FM systems provided me with considerable assistance.  My word identification scores were still in the 70% range.  However, as I crossed the line into a profound loss of hearing, my ability to understand speech started to diminish considerably.  By the time I became a candidate for a Cochlear Implant, my word identification scores were 0% for my right ear and 10% for my left ear.  Phone use was virtually impossible.  I struggled to lipread every word.  It was exhausting to try to carry on a  conversation.

I received my Cochlear Implant from the excellent surgery and audiology team at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.  The surgery process went without a hitch.  I was out of the hospital the next day, and took a only a few days off from work.

After a month of healing, I went for my initial programming session.  I thought that I would be well prepared for this appointment.  After all, I am a trained Audiologist.  I have counseled patients myself about not having unrealistic expectations, especially on the first day.  But I knew there were some patients who could hear speech even on the first day of activation.  I wanted to be one of those people.  I felt I was entitled to be one of those people.  I was wrong.

After the initial Mapping was done, I listened to speech for this first time.  And it sounded like…GARBAGE.  Specifically, it sounded like R2D2.  It was just all a bunch of beeps and chirps.  I drove home that day and decided a nice bottle of single malt Scotch was needed.  I was feeling every emotion from anger, to bewilderment, to sadness.

But to make a long story short, the changes that occur over the next 6 months were rapid.  After about 2 weeks, the implant started sounding like Sammy the Snake hissing sentences into my head.  That’s better than R2D2.  Then it changed to Alvin from the Chipmunks.  Next it started to sound like a young Jerry Lewis.  Now it sounds pretty normal, at least to me.

My word identification score started to rapidly improve.  I cannot recall all of my scores, but after about 6 months I was understanding about 70% of monosyllabic words in isolation and 100% of words in sentences.  After one year, my monosyllabic word identification score for words in quiet improved to 96%.  I was and continue to be completely blown away by this.  After all, I started hearing just beeps and chirps.

Given that I recall having much better hearing, I can describe the difference between hearing through a CI vs a hearing aid.  Basically, when I had enough hearing to benefit from a hearing aid, speech and music sounded full and rich.  But as my hearing loss progressed, all I heard from the hearing aid were low pitches.  Everyone sounded like they had mashed potatoes in their mouths.

The CI sounds very crisp and precise.  I hear all the high frequency fricatives (s, sh, f, th etc) quite well.  I have been told that my speech has improved immensely, although I never realized that my speech production was deteriorating with my progressive hearing loss.  In hindsight, it makes sense.

Music and hearing in noise remained problematic.  To help with hearing in noise, we can get the same improvements hearing aid users get from the use of Directional Microphones or FM systems.  I use both with my CI and it helps.

For me personally, the use of a hearing aid in my non-implanted ear has helped with music perception.  Without a hearing aid, I can barely hear any bass at all. Bass makes music sound full and rich.  On the other hand, the treble I get from the CI makes speech and music sound clear and crisp.  Thus the CI on its own is fine for speech, but makes music sound like it is coming out of a small radio rather than a big stereo.  The hearing aid on its own sounds pretty bad for any type of sound, speech or music.  Combined with the CI, it does not help with speech, but does give music a richer deeper sound.

For those of you considering a Cochlear Implant, my single best word of advice to you is be patient.  Do not expect miracles, especially on the first day.  The improvements will come as your brain relearns to makes sense of these electrical signals.

Please remember too, that everyone is unique.  While my experiences are not uncommon, your pace of improvements and the final levels you reach could be better or worse than me.

I am so glad I took the step of getting a Cochlear Implant and would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

41 thoughts on “What Does a Cochlear Implant Sound Like?

  1. Wow, as I read this, I thought two things. First, “This guy is me.” And second, “This is just what I needed to read today.” Thanks. I am using a Med-el implant and am just 2 months into the hearing rehab. It’s mostly still noise. I started a blog about my own experience too. http://smy2ci.blogspot.com

    Thanks for posting, I am going to be reading more.

    • Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to Cochlear Implants. But you will continue to improve over the next year! I am now going to check out your blog!

  2. Thanks Peter! Yet another marvelous resource for our kids!!!! I so love reading your blog and have shared it with many! You are amazing! 🙂
    Audiology Always,

  3. I really enjoyed reading about your experience. Can I share it with our potential candidates for a cochlear implant. I am a audiologist with the New Brunswick Cochlear Implant Follow-Up Program.

  4. My mother is a CI patient as of about 5 years ago for her one ear but it has now become time for her to get her left ear done tomorrow, February 29th 2012, at 8:40 am. She is nervous and is my family just like the first one. She tells me that hearing through the CI is different then without, its definitely more mechanical then anything. The hearing loss is in our family and is carried by the mothers, my mom had a hearing loss that was just high frequency but did not realize it until she had the antibiotic aminoglycocides that made her hearing deteriorate at a quick pace. My sister, 16, and myself, 19, are both hearing impaired. I am a student at a top university and until now i didn’t realize how much I couldn’t hear and as on February 18th, I have been wearing hearing aids which make a large difference in my ability to hear. My sister also needs hearing aids but won’t get them because she is doing excellent in high-school without them. My mom is nervous about being completely deaf but she knows with the second CI implant she will hear again.

    • Hi Harleigh. Thanks for sharing your family story. I am sending positive thoughts to your mom and to you as well. Although having a hearing loss sucks (lets not kid ourselves), not being able to do anything about it is even worse. We do have CI’s, hearing aids, and FM systems that can and do make a big difference.

  5. I’m going to get my CI surgery on Wednesday and I am so nervous! Your blog helped me a lot, I don’t know anyone that has had it done and I am friends with hearing people. I don’t know very many deaf people. I’m glad you told us to be patient and not to let our expectations get too high when we activate it. I am like you, I wore hearing aids and now my understanding is very low so CI would benefit me better. Thank you for your advice, it calmed me down a lot.

      • I got surgery one week ago and I’m feeling better than I have been. Since I woke up I have had a horrible ringing in my ear. It sounds like a music box had been opened and it won’t stop! haha But it’s getting better because now I can work and keep myself busy with things. The dizziness was pretty bad on my part. I got great news though, I get activated on June 29th, which is in a week! Faster than I had thought! 🙂

      • Wow. June 29th is around the corner. Two pointers: 1. Make sure you let your CI team know about your experiences. They can tell what’s normal and what’s not.
        2. Remember not to expect too much on your first day. I heard nothing on day 1. Then it got better and better.

        Good luck!

  6. Hi. I’m an old rubella baby, so I was born with cataracts, numerous other eye problems, deaf in my right ear, and now my left ear is going out. I’ve been using hearing aids for over 10 years now. Last fall my cell phone rang at full blast in my ear causing my hearing to deteriorate even more. My current hearing aid is basically maxed out. I literally can’t be deaf. I would be completely disfunctional. I have an eye condition that causes my eyes to constantly shake, which would keep me from reading lips or sign language. I’m scared. I want to hear my children say their vows someday, and I want to hear grand children. I’m also a music lover. I led a church choir 30 years ago. I have so many questions. Will I be able to hear music?? Will I be able to distinguish one voice from another?? Will I be able to talk on a phone?? Can I go for a swim?? Does any insurance pay for this? How do I find a doctor in my area that I can trust? I’ve had so much disappointment in my life that I’m afraid to do any serious action towards a CI. What should I do?? Where should I go?? Is there any real hope for me??

    • Hi Karen. Thanks for the comments. I will try to answer some of your questions, but first, I strongly suggest that you find a reputable cochlear implant centre. Then I would ask these questions to the CI audiologist who provide you with answers based on larger numbers of CI recipients. Also, you need to find an implant centre that does a lot of CI’s. In Canada, we have designated implant centres, but in the US any ENT surgeon can start doing CI’s. As a result you have a much bigger range of quality from the some of the best in the world to some that are not so good. So do your homework.

      When you say that you are scared about not being able to hear certain things in the future, I completely and totally understand where you are coming from. Yes you will be able to hear music, but it will not sound the same. But with effort, you may still enjoy it. I certainly do, and even play an instrument in a band. With today’s technology many CI users can talk on the phone. Swimming is easy, you just take the CI off, but scuba diving is out of the question as the pressure is bad for the CI. Advanced Bionics now has a CI that can be worn in the water called the Neptune. You might want to check that out. Insurance questions are hard for me to answer as I am Canadian…every Canadian who needs a CI gets one.

      Another way to get more answers is to contact the CI company offices in the US. They can answer all your questions as well as the insurance ones. Here are some links:

      Cochlear US: http://www.cochlearamericas.com/
      Advanced Bionics: http://www.advancedbionics.com/us/en/home.html
      Med El: http://www.medel.com/us/?PHPSESSID=dr8ml6ktllrn87j2e1ril2p4q2

      Lastly, I am able to lots of things because I supplement my CI with FM technology. You will see many references to how I use FM systems throughout my blog.

      So chin up, stop worrying, and start your journey towards better hearing!

  7. Hi Peter I really liked your write up, it explained things better then anything I’ve heard so far, we are really not sure what to do at the moment, we have a 7year old son whom was born at 24 weeks and due to antibiotic has a servere to profound loss in his left ear and a servere loss in the right ear, he can not talk real well and relies manly on auslan sign, he is in a mainstream private school with a interperter and is doing really well and keeps up with his class mates, he is a outgoing little fellow and always happy but has a lot of trouble socialising,this is when we really feel for him . We are being advised by all the professionals to get a CI for his left ear, we really value there opinion and they are not pushing us either way. So my question is ,do you think it’s worth trading what little bit of natural hearing he has in his left ear for the CI hearing, I think you could answer this better than any one because you have experience this kind of loss and also the CI. Hope you can help us make the right decision for our beautiful little son that will effect him for the rest of his life. Thank you from Tabors mother, Lesley

    • Hi Lesley,

      As a parent of a child with significant hearing loss, you have the burden of making many very critical decisions for your child. It is a big responsibility. I can certainly empathize with how you feel.

      I am not your son’s audiologist with access to all the important critical information about him, so it is not possible for me to say with 100% certainty “Yes, you should get him a CI for sure”. However, I can share some of my experiences which I have been attempting to do via my blog. In short, I have no regrets getting my CI. The sound I get now via the cochlear implant is such a vast improvement over hearing aids with a severe-profound hearing. Functionally, I can do so much more now.

      Generally speaking, I find that the vast majority of CI audiologists are conservative with their recommendations. In my discussions with Canadian CI audiologists, they will recommend a CI only when they are sure that the child or adult’s ability to hear will improve. So if your son’s professionals (audiologists and ENTs) are recommending a CI for your son, they are pretty confident he will perform better compared to hearing aids.

      I hope this helps!

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  11. Peter,
    You don’t need to reply to this. You are a busy guy!
    My audiologist talked with me about a CI yesterday. She said that I still have some room for my hearing aids to help but I can see the CI coming down the road.
    I want to tell you that I’ve been researching CI’s all morning – scientific articles, etc. and your blog about your personal experience – with the perspective of an audiologist – has been the most helpful thing that I have read.
    Many, many thanks for dedicating your life to helping people hear and taking the time to share your experience.

  12. Thanks for this amazing blog. I will share this information with my father who has a severe to profound hearing loss. He is worried but is frustrated with not being able to communicate with family and friends. I know this blog will help him to seek a medical referral. You have touched so many lives with your experience and dedication to helping others. Thanks again!!

    • Thanks Susan! Remind him that he is always in control. He can withdraw his consent at any time. I find this helps people who are nervosue about surgery or getting a CI become more relaxed. Nobody can force him to do anything, but he does owe it to himself to make an informed decision.

  13. Oh Peter, you have left me with tears of joy. I’ve read and read and read and NOTHING has been as helpful as this page and your blog. In the last 3 months we’ve gone from totally normal life to our 5 year old having a profound hearing loss. After a bunch of terrifying “possibilities” he has been diagnosed with an enlarged vestibular aquaduct. American doctors love throwing diagnoses out so he was first was diagnosed with a brain tumor, then heart disease, thyroid disease and even diabetes for a moment. Idiots! Lol! As a hearing parent I have not been welcomed warmly into the deaf community, especially after I mentioned the words “Cochlear implant.” Anyhow…I’ve rambled on long enough. Thank you again. I look forward to checking back often to find answers to my many questions as they arise.

    • Hello Courtney. Thank you for the kind words. I won’t lie to you…I think having a hearing loss sucks. If someone offered me a pill tomorrow that enabled me to regain all my hearing, I would take it in a heart beat. But it is by no means the end of the world. With today’s technological advancements, combined with a positive attitude, it is a very manageable disability. You will have ups and downs with your child over time. The teenage years are tough for any parent, but especially for a parent and a teenager that is different form “the norm” (see this blog posting on my views of what is “normal”). But it will all work out in the end and your child will make you so proud.

  14. The stories and comments are incredible, I had my CI surgery 6 weeks ago and activated now for just 2 weeks, the first week was like a flock of canaries or birds in my ear and a lot of shhhh sounds no voice recognition. Now in the 2nd week I am now hearing words that sounds like the chipmunks or audio played back very slow. I can make sense of some words but they are low in volume. I consider this huge progress in just 2 weeks and hope for much better. As most of the comments I have read patience is the word and not to give up. I have struggled for years with gradual hearing loss in both ears, I am fortunate to have 1 ear that I can carry on a conversation but it too has loss and phones just do not work for me at all whereas everything is fragmented. The sounds I hear today are very crisp and can hear needles drop.
    So, I am waiting on the day I can really hear words clear and if this brings that quality back into my life I will go for the 2nd implant next year. This technology is incredible and hearing aids are no match. Wishing all on this blog well and pray that all can HEAR well again.

  15. I suffer from sever otosclerosis which now renders me profoundly deaf in my right ear. My left ear is non-functional since a failed mobilisation forty five years ago. Reading your story was a revelation for me. I see so many parallels with my own experiences especially missing out on education. I have got by with stapedectomy and hearing aids in my only hearing ear for the past forty five years. I have been a musician (although some listeners may disagree). I have been successful in my chosen career as an electronics engineer. I now find that my hearing has deteriorated over the past few months to the point where my hearing aid is useless. I am getting some help with very a uncomfortable bone conduction device clamped onto my head with a headband. I recently had a revision stapedectomy which failed and was told that my round window was totally obliterated and would need to be drilled out. I am told that the chances of success are no better than 2:1 and in the event of failure nothing is lost because I could then go for the cochlear implant however from the financial viewpoint things are not so easy. I can pay for the drilling or I can pay for the implant but I cannot pay for both. With otosclerosis there is no insurance company that will offer cover. My feeling is that the CI is the way to go. This is where I am today. Reading your blog is the most useful information I could wish for.

    • Hi Terry,

      Thanks for sharing. On one hand, I am sorry to hear that your hearing has deteriorated to this degree. I do not wish this upon anyone.

      I also don’t want to get political, but I am also sorry to hear that you have to make some tough choices due to what treatments your insurance company will pay for.

      Remember, if you do opt to get, a cochlear implant, please be patient. The results are not immediate and may take up to a year of relearning how to listen. But you will get there.

      Good luck,

  16. Got my CI installed last 9/11 (pretty easy date to remember) and I can confirm that your experience is very close to my own. I got passed the R2D2 and snake part and I am now trying to get *through* the Chipmunks stage. It is still chipmunky but if I turn on the device LOUD enough I can hear the original voice *through* the chipmunk itself and the first time that I was able to make sense of words was just an amazing moment :).
    I got my CI because I am part of a testgroup to test out a new kind of use of a CI, besides my deaf left ear (sudden deafness since 2 years, I am 31 right now) I also got a GIGANTIC tinnitus. This new way of using the Med-El by re-writting the software should send pulses out instead of receiving them, and hopefully will reconfigure the brain by telling it to stop that annoying loud beep sound!

    Before we are going to enter that stage of this project they first want to let me learn to live with the CI itself and I can only thank them for that cause by now things look much brighter then 2 years ago.
    Its great to read other peoples experience, thanks for sharing yours.

    Greets from Holland!

  17. What you stress is patience. That’s a bit of an issue I’m having as I lack it. I hear sounds I may have never heard. High frequencies died long ago but I can hear pure tones – car seat warning, timer, my dog’s tags clanging, and birds. While they’re nice, they are useless sounds to me (but I have fewer burned pots on the stove).

    So, I am jumpy (and I spent years in a crazy environment and learned to tune out to an amazing degree) and I attempt to not be irritable. We both said it feels like I’ve had the CI for 6 months but it has only been almost 2.5. That said, it is the stress we’re under as I attempt to get used to it.

    Do you have any suggestions for a minimum amount of time to wear it each day? I am alone with my dog most of the time and do not venture out to talk to humans.

    Thanks for your blog. I enjoyed the transition and mine is different as expected.

    • Hi Sam,

      I think the wearing time will vary significantly from person to person. I wore mine pretty much full time right away to try to get used to it. But I strongly encourage you to follow the directions given to you by your Cochlear Implant Audiologist. He or she has seen many CI patients and can better discuss this with you.

      • Peter: I just returned from the hospital where I had the implant. I saw the audiologist and the doctor. I am telling the audiologist what my wear time (I think that’s a double entendre 🙂 ) has been and she is satisfied. The audiologist was able to get me into a research program at the hospital. With the distortion of sounds, it’s possible the electrodes are placed too closely together. I will go back later this year to have that more closely examined and adjusted.

        In general (about my own “path” with the CI), I can sometimes make out the voices but the distortion that sounds has changed – intermittently clears, as Carf talks about the transition from R2D2 to chipmunks, I’m staying in the same mode as words (person dependent) become more understandable but not clear enough. We’ll see what happens. The doctor asked what was worse, not hearing or the CI. I didn’t answer because I’m not sure yet. Perhaps the research will help, if not me, others.

        I understand you can’t guide me. I do apologize for asking.

        Many thanks for your blog. I find it helpful and not unrealistically so.

      • You are doing the right thing by keeping the ENT and Audiologist in the loop. It took me almost a year to get the full benefit of my implant. We had to turn half my electrodes off at first as I was getting some weird sounds and sensations. The we slowly added more electrodes over time. Keep persevering!

      • That makes so much sense, Peter. I was born with a hearing problem that wasn’t diagnosed wayyyy back then. By ’64 or ’65 it was my father who believed I’d benefit from a hearing aid and went out and bought one for me.

        When we considered the implant, I said it may be the onslaught sounds that got me. It’s more but the logical way to start this (to me) is having 1/2 the electrodes turned off. Get used to that and slowly add more sound.

        The world to me is distorted and sounds like ducks. I had no clue my hair against a leather couch made noise. Kudos to your team who figured it out.

  18. Thank you – I needed your information. I am on my way tomorrow to the House Ear Institute in LA for implant evaluation. Lost total hearing in right ear 24 yrs ago due to an acoustic neuroma and out of the clear blue sky SSHL in the left. Hearing aid is not working but scared of an implant. Your encouraging words have helped. Patience is golden I will try to remember this.

  19. I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only one who first started hearing with just beeps. It sounded kind of like ringing every time a sound was being made. My brain is so used to tinitis that it just assumed that was what it was.

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