Ask anyone involved in sound recording to name a mic manufacturer off the top of their head, and the chances are they will say "Neumann". If you then ask for a model number, the reply will probably be "U87". There can be few commercial studios in the world without at least a couple of U87s to their name, along with perhaps several other Neumann models, and it is the one microphone that almost everyone can identify immediately from its slightly conical body and wedge-shaped grille (see the box on the U87 elsewhere in this article for more details).
NEUMANN TLM103 £699
So why have Neumann remained at the pinnacle of mic production for so long? Probably because they have always paid such careful attention to detail in the mechanical and electrical design of their capsules, head-amplifiers and packaging. Neumann mics have always been rugged, reliable and, although not totally accurate or transparent, they tend to possess a character which is always musical, and which can be used creatively with a huge range of sound sources.
A lot of smaller professional and home studios would love to have a mic cupboard full of Neumanns -- but quality always costs, and for many, mics like the U87 are outside their available budgets. The TLM103 has been designed to address this problem by providing what is, in effect, a cut-down U87, but at a much more attractive price -- about a third that of the U87, in fact.
Although the TLM103 is inevitably less flexible than the U87 -- it offers only a fixed cardioid polar pattern -- there are no compromises in its design, which means that its appeal will extend across a very broad range, from professional broadcasters and recording studios to the more demanding home studios. Indeed, in several important areas, the TLM103 actually outperforms the U87 -- even the latest-generation U87Ai version.
At first glance, the new microphone looks just like a U87, but with a stubby little body instead of the large, slightly conical shape of its antecedent. Certainly the archetypal wedge-shaped wire mesh grille is identical to the U87's. To all intents and purposes, the TLM103 really is pretty much a re-boxed U87 with a few of the frills and expensive bits left out.
The large-diaphragm capsule unit in the TLM103, the K103, is derived directly from the K87, which has been used in U87s and U67s since their inception. As you might expect, given that the U87 and U67 are both multi-polar, the K87 capsule actually comprises a pair of cardioid elements mounted back-to-back, and internal switching is employed to combine the two diaphragm outputs as necessary to produce the required polar responses.
The new TLM103, however, has a fixed cardioid response, because the new K103 capsule which it employs is effectively only the front half of the original K87. The back electrode and a single-diaphragm assembly are retained, a reduction in complexity that enables the manufacturing cost of the new mic to be significantly lower than that of the U87.
The capsule is fixed on a rubber mount which is, in turn, situated on a small circular circuit board placed horizontally just below the mic's grille. This circuit board is supported by a specially shaped rubber ring that provides further isolation from structural vibrations. The double-sided PCB carries all the head amplifier electronics and, as you might expect, surface-mount components have been employed throughout, so that the complete assembly is extremely compact. Consequently, the new mic does not require the long tubular body of its sibling, and its stubby body is perfectly suited to the compact internals. In fact, apart from the XLR output connector and a short length of ribbon cable, even the bottom 30mm of the minimal casing is completely empty.
The self noise (ie. that of the internal circuitry) of the new mic is stunningly low compared with similar models; presumably this is another benefit of the 103's TLM circuitry (see the 'More On TLM' box for more on this). The equivalent SPL is quoted at just 7dB A-weighted (according to the DIN/IEC 651 measurement specification) whereas the current U87Ai (which is already about 6dB quieter than previous versions) is specified as having a self noise of 12dB (A-weighted) in cardioid mode. The polar response is relevant here because, as the U87 is a multi-polar design, it has higher noise figures in the other two patterns (omni and figure-of-eight) due to the contribution of the rear half of the capsule.
Another very impressive characteristic of the TLM103 is that it can accommodate peak signal levels of up to 135dB SPL at 0.5% distortion. The U87Ai, meanwhile, can only manage 127dB SPL with its 10dB pad switched in! The ability to handle such high volume means that the new mic does not need a pre-attenuator, another factor that has enabled costs to be further reduced; in case you didn't know, a switch is a surprisingly expensive component.
The electrical sensitivity of the TLM103 is very slightly lower than that of a U87Ai, at 21mV/Pa, which means that it should need roughly 3dB more gain. However, the output level is pretty high compared to many other mics, so this is hardly likely to be a problem. The TLM103 can only be powered via a standard 48V phantom supply (there is no provision for internal batteries as on the original U87s) and current co
The TLM103 is supplied in a wooden case, with a shaped hard foam insert, which should afford a good degree of protection for the mic in storage and transit. A cable is not included, but Neumann claim that the mic is insensitive to capacitive loading and long cable lengths, and you should be able to use any decent cable without problems.
The mic is available with either a satin nickel or a matt black finish, and a simple but elegant plastic swivel stand adaptor comes as standard. This screws onto a thread around the base of the mic, and a locking ring then allows the precise angle of the adaptor to be adjusted to suit any desired mounting arrangement. A wide range of alternative mounting accessories is available, including auditorium hangers and elastic suspensions.
No foam windshield is supplied, but the mic has a strong, dual-layer wire mesh grille which is reasonably effective at reducing plosives and popping; optional foam windshields and pop shields are available separately. The recommended foam windshield, by the way, is the same as that used on the U89.
The front of the cardioid polar pattern is indicated by the familiar red Neumann logo on the side of the mic and, in simple listening tests, it appeared that the pattern is relatively narrow -- certainly when compared to something like the Neumann KM86. The generic polar plot supplied shows the response to be 5dB down by about 80° for frequencies below 1kHz, with very severe narrowing at the upper frequencies -- as you might expect on a large-diaphragm microphone. Interestingly, the plot also shows a distinct hypercardioid tail to the rear for frequencies above about 8kHz.
With simple voice tests, I found that the mic provided very good rejection of rearward sound -- of the order of 25dB or more -- and that off-axis sounds retained much of their natural character. The quality does change, but in a smooth and progressive manner, without any disturbing colorations.
The overall frequency response is very natural and open and, although the TLM103 displays the characteristic warmth associated with the classic U87 and U67, its bass response is in no way overblown. Having said that, care is needed in placing the mic to ensure that the powerful proximity effect does not become a dominant part of the captured sound. Still on the subject of the lower end of the frequency range, the TLM103's internal amplifier is apparently linear well below 20Hz, and although the mic's frequency response tails off gradually below about 60Hz, it remains surprisingly sensitive to structural vibrations and wind noise. (I found, for example, that the mic captured every footfall when it was mounted on a stand with the supplied swivel-mount adaptor.) Consequently, I would strongly recommend the use of the appropriate elastic suspension and a decent foam windshield.
Just like that of the U87, the TLM103's K103 capsule has a flat frequency response up to around 5kHz, and it then shows a mild 4dB presence boost up to about 15kHz where its sensitivity starts to fall quite steeply. This provides the perfect amount of 'cut' and presence for most sources, and helps sources to retain their clarity in a mix without standing out too much. Again, careful placement is the key, but the mic has such a well-balanced nature that it should always be possible, with a little experimentation
Compared side-by-side with a standard U87, which had enjoyed a typically varied life, I preferred the brand-new TLM103 with its slight edge in terms of clarity and subtlety. However, the two mics exhibited very similar characters indeed, and I would be inclined to put the few small differences down to the age gap between them rather than anything more fundamental.
Essentially, the TLM103 has a big, open, natural character, which has a tendency to sound warm and full rather than thin and clinical. It may not be completely accurate, but it is certainly musical and can easily be used to the advantage of the recording. The polar pattern is as accurate as it can be with a large-diaphragm capsule, and provides good front-back rejection combined with clean-sounding off-axis pickup. The mic is prone to mechanical rumbles and wind noise, and these should be tamed by using an appropriate elastic suspension. However, high-pass filtering on your mixer can be used effectively, and although the mic does not incorporate its own switchable filter, the internal amplifier showed no signs of distress from excessive (but deliberately induced) low frequency signals.
If you are looking for a very high-quality, general-purpose mic, this has to be one to add to your list -- no matter at what level you are operating. It has the instant visual advantage of the Neumann badge, the aural signature of the classic large-diaphragm U87/U67 mics, and a price which, although not affordable to everyone, must be said to offer excellent value. If you look at the TLM103 as a quieter and more dynamic U87, which just happens to have been left in cardioid mode, the price of the TLM103 represents something of a bargain at about a third that of the U87Ai!
There are many, many other perfectly respectable large-diaphragm condenser mics on the market, but few that sound as good (or better) than the classic Neumanns, and very few indeed that can compete with the price of this latest addition to the family.
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