Robust and efficient speech perception relies on the interpretation of acoustically-variable phoneme realizations, yet prior neuroimaging studies are inconclusive regarding the degree to which subphonemic detail is maintained over time as categorical representations arise. It is also unknown whether this depends on the demands of the listening task. We addressed these questions by using neural decoding to quantify the (dis)similarity of brain response patterns evoked during two different tasks. We recorded magnetoencephalography (MEG) as adult participants heard isolated, randomized tokens from a /ba/-/da/ speech continuum. In the passive task, their attention was diverted. In the active task, they categorized each token as ba or da. We found that linear classifiers successfully decoded ba vs. da perception from the MEG data. Data from the left hemisphere were sufficient to decode the percept early in the trial, while the right hemisphere was necessary but not sufficient for decoding at later time points. We also decoded stimulus representations and found that they were maintained longer in the active task than in the passive task; however, these representations did not pattern more like discrete phonemes when an active categorical response was required. Instead, in both tasks, early phonemic patterns gave way to a representation of stimulus ambiguity that coincided in time with reliable percept decoding. Our results suggest that the categorization process does not require the loss of subphonemic detail, and that the neural representation of isolated speech sounds includes concurrent phonemic and subphonemic information.

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Author notes

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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