Here’s the quick answer: There’s no way to know for sure.
Due to the unique nature of each person with hearing loss, their individual anatomy, their prior auditory experiences and auditory development in their brain, and differences in electrode placement in each particular person’s cochlea (in the case of cochlear implant users), there is no one answer for how hearing loss sounds. It’s like asking someone, “What does red look like to you?” Well… it looks like… red. Understanding others’ perceptions of any sensation (sound, sight, taste, etc.) can be described but never quite pinpointed by an outside observer.
That said, there are some great simulations of what we think a hearing loss and various amplification systems might sound like out there on the Internet.
- Hearing loss simulations include the Better Hearing Institute’s variety of sounds with normal, mild, and moderate hearing loss factors and this Hearing Loss Sampler which demonstrates speech in both quiet and noise as well as other phenomena like recruitment.
- CI simulations include PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers and Listening Demos from The University of Texas-Dallas (this site allows you to manipulate both the number of channels and electrode insertion depth) and this site, which also has demonstrations of Auditory Neuropathy and listening to music with a CI+FM.
- This site demonstrates how FM Systems help listeners in noisy environments by increasing the signal (important stuff, voices) to noise (background distraction) ratio, especially helpful for listeners with hearing loss (but good for everyone else, too!) (See THIS post for more information on FM and Soundfield Systems)
While simulation sites are great and manipulating the parameters provides for some fun (and challenging) listening experiences, I encourage you to take all of this with a grain of salt. Remember that:
- We can never really know what things sound like to each individual user.
- Saying that this is how music would sound with a “mild” hearing loss is somewhat deceptive because ten different people can have completely different audiograms which all qualify as “mild” hearing loss — things will sound different based on each person’s individual configuration of hearing loss.
- Though some CI electrode arrays have up to 24 electrodes (points that contact the cochlea), testing has shown that CI users can demonstrate pitch perception of far greater numbers of tones. (See Kwon and van den Honert, 2006 and this 2006 abstract, “Pitch Steering with Sequential Stimulation of Intracochlear Electrodes”)
- What sounds “natural” or “normal” to a person who has lived a lifetime with typical hearing is not “normal” to a person with hearing loss. Our brains mold themselves around the input that they receive. For a CI user, the CI sound is optimum and normal. Their brains learn to take in this input and use it — as is proven when CI/HA/Baha users perform well in auditory only tasks, listen to speech in noise, or differentiated between minimal pairs (words that are similar in all but one sounds, like pan-man, pin-pan, etc.)
- Ultimately, the proof is in the output — people speak what they hear, and cochlear implant/hearing aid/Baha users are able to achieve very natural, melodic vocal quality, and even learn to play instruments or sing. Though the voices on the simulations sound robotic, this is not how the voices of CI users sound.