Understanding speech when background noise is present is a critical everyday task that varies widely among people. A key challenge is to understand why some people struggle with speech-in-noise perception, despite having clinically normal hearing. Here, we developed new figure-ground tests that require participants to extract a coherent tone pattern from a stochastic background of tones. These tests dissociated variability in speech-in-noise perception related to mechanisms for detecting static (same-frequency) patterns and those for tracking patterns that change frequency over time. In addition, elevated hearing thresholds that are widely considered to be 'normal' explained significant variance in speech-in-noise perception, independent of figure-ground perception. Overall, our results demonstrate that successful speech-in-noise perception is related to audiometric thresholds, fundamental grouping of static acoustic patterns, and tracking of acoustic sources that change in frequency. Crucially, speech-in-noise deficits are better assessed by measuring central (grouping) processes alongside audiometric thresholds.
Conflict of interest statement
The authors declare no competing interests.
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