Neurons of the ventral cochlear nucleus (VCN) perform diverse information processing tasks on incoming activity from the auditory nerve. We have investigated the cellular basis for functional diversity in VCN cells by characterizing the outward membrane conductances of acutely isolated cells using whole-cell, tight-seal, current- and voltage-clamp techniques. The electrical responses of isolated cells fall into two broad categories. Type 1 cells respond to small depolarizations with a regular train of action potentials. Under voltage clamp, these cells exhibit a noninactivating outward current for voltage steps positive to -35 mV. Analysis of tail currents reveals two exponentially decaying components with slightly different voltage dependence. These currents reverse at -73 mV, near the potassium equilibrium potential of -84 mV, and are blocked by tetraethylammonium (TEA). The major outward current in Type I cells thus appears to be mediated by potassium channels. In contrast to Type I cells, Type II cells respond to small depolarizations with only one to three short- latency action potentials and exhibit strong rectification around -70 mV. Under voltage clamp, these cells exhibit a noninactivating outward current with a threshold near -70 mV. Analysis of tail currents reveals two components with different voltage sensitivity and kinetics. A low- threshold current with slow kinetics is partly activated at rest. This current reverses at -77 mV and is blocked by 4-aminopyridine (4-AP) but is only partly affected by TEA. The other component is a high-threshold current activated by steps positive to -35 mV. This current is blocked by TEA, but not by 4-AP. A simple model based on the voltage dependence and kinetics of the slow low-threshold outward current in Type II cells was developed. The model produces current- and voltage-clamp responses that resemble those recorded experimentally. Our results indicate that the two major classes of acoustic response properties of VCN neurons are in part attributable to the types of outward (potassium) conductances present in these cells. The low-threshold conductance in the Type II (bushy) cells probably plays a role in the preservation of information about the acoustic stimulus phase from the auditory nerve to central auditory nuclei involved in low-frequency sound localization.