Synapses and receptive fields of the cerebral cortex are plastic. However, changes to specific inputs must be coordinated within neural networks to ensure that excitability and feature selectivity are appropriately configured for perception of the sensory environment. We induced long-lasting enhancements and decrements to excitatory synaptic strength in rat primary auditory cortex by pairing acoustic stimuli with activation of the nucleus basalis neuromodulatory system. Here we report that these synaptic modifications were approximately balanced across individual receptive fields, conserving mean excitation while reducing overall response variability. Decreased response variability should increase detection and recognition of near-threshold or previously imperceptible stimuli. We confirmed both of these hypotheses in behaving animals. Thus, modification of cortical inputs leads to wide-scale synaptic changes, which are related to improved sensory perception and enhanced behavioral performance.