The auditory neural code must serve a wide range of auditory tasks that require great sensitivity in time and frequency and be effective over the diverse array of sounds present in natural acoustic environments. It has been suggested that sensory systems might have evolved highly efficient coding strategies to maximize the information conveyed to the brain while minimizing the required energy and neural resources. Here we show that, for natural sounds, the complete acoustic waveform can be represented efficiently with a nonlinear model based on a population spike code. In this model, idealized spikes encode the precise temporal positions and magnitudes of underlying acoustic features. We find that when the features are optimized for coding either natural sounds or speech, they show striking similarities to time-domain cochlear filter estimates, have a frequency-bandwidth dependence similar to that of auditory nerve fibres, and yield significantly greater coding efficiency than conventional signal representations. These results indicate that the auditory code might approach an information theoretic optimum and that the acoustic structure of speech might be adapted to the coding capacity of the mammalian auditory system.