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Rode TF-5

Stereo Capacitor Microphone Set
By Hugh Robjohns

Rode TF-5

Developed in conjunction with renowned recording engineer Tony Faulkner, Rode's new stereo miking kit is intended not just to compete with the established competition, but to better it. Have they succeeded?

Australian manufacturers Rode have come a very long way since Peter Freedman introduced his very first microphone — the Chinese-sourced budget model, the original NT1 — in 1990. Today, the company is a state-of-the-art, high-volume microphone manufacturer with more than $60 million (AUD) invested in precision manufacturing machinery located in three large factory buildings on the outskirts of Sydney. With a workforce of over 250, Rode employ some of the very best designers and engineers drawn from around the globe and they have created a broad range of increasingly impressive microphones and related technologies. And on that last point, it's also worth mentioning that Aphex, Event, and Soundfield are also wholly owned companies sharing relevant knowledge and expertise within the Freedman Group.

From its very humble beginnings, Rode have grown over those 30 years to the point where their volume sales are in the video and project studio markets, but the company's flagship high-end products are now rubbing shoulders with the long-established European and American standard-bearers.

My colleague Sam Inglis described Rode's NTR active ribbon mic (SOS June 2015) as a watershed product for the company, and I think he was absolutely right. It was, arguably, the microphone that moved Rode beyond the project studio market and into the serious professional environment. Since then several other high-end mics have been announced, such as the NT‑RV valve ribbon, and the keenly awaited NT‑49 multi-pattern and TFM‑50 'spherical omni' large-diaphragm mics (the last being Rode's take on the classic Neumann M50, of course). There's also an Ambisonic offering in the form of the NT‑SF1 (SOS December 2018). All of these microphones demonstrate Rode's serious determination to be counted amongst the very best microphone manufacturers in the world — an aim which is backed up by a 10-year warranty upon product registration.

What TF?

The 'TF' initials in the model numbers of some of these latest microphones are significant: they indicate the close involvement of British recording engineer Tony Faulkner in their development. Classical recording aficionados will already know the name very well; Tony has been a classical recording, editing and mastering engineer for over 30 years. He founded Finesplice in 1980 and has been trading as Green Room Productions since 1986, creating well over 2000 commercial classical recordings in that time, a remarkable number of which have won top awards. And as if that wasn't enough, Tony also has a specific stereo mic array named after him — what more evidence is needed to confirm the man knows his onions? So his involvement in Rode's development of the TFM‑50 (and other) microphones is genuinely noteworthy and definitely much more than just some marketing 'puffery' or endorsement deal.

As it happens, I bumped into Tony at an industry event a few months ago and, during our conversation, it became clear to me that his role in helping to define and steer the developmental and tonal directions of Rode's new microphones was both very active and highly significant. Perhaps more importantly, he is genuinely using these mics in his own recordings now, alongside 'traditional' high-end mics from his impressive collection — and he uses them because they deliver exactly what is needed. There can be no greater validation of the quality of these mics.

While we eagerly await the TFM‑50's introduction, another TF-badged microphone was launched recently: the diminutive TF‑5, a small-diaphragm capacitor mic. Currently only available as a stereo set, the physical size and general appearance of this new mic will inevitably draw comparisons with the revered vintage Neumann KM84 (or its current relation, the KM184), and I was able to compare it directly with both models from my own mic collection.

The TF‑5 ships in a large (325 x 145 x 100 mm), black, cardboard carton with a magnetically closed lid. Inside is a high-density foam tray with a slot in the side for a silica-gel pack to help minimise humidity problems in storage. Nestled in this tray is a matched pair of TF‑5 microphones along with a pair of RM5 stand mounts which, although only simple clip-style mounts, are very nicely engineered and have a repositionable lever arm to adjust the angle. The mounting thread is the American 5/8-inch standard, of course, but 3/8-inch inserts are provided for European mic stands. Good those these clips are, I was surprised that Rode chose not to include some form of suspension mount given the high price of this stereo set.

Removing the upper tray via its fabric tags at each end reveals a lower tray, again lined with high-density foam, storing a pair of WS5 foam shields, a Rode stereo bar, and a small hard-backed booklet at the side which describes the mic's ethos and production, as well as its technical specifications.

Examining the elegant TF‑5 microphone more closely, I found it to be slightly smaller than the KM84 (100 x 21 mm) and KM184 (107 x 22 mm) as it measures just 98.7 x 20 mm. However, at 114g it is nearly 35g heavier than either of these classic Neumann models, which came as a surprise.

The body is finished in Rode's proprietary matte–black ceramic coating and, although it is an end-fire microphone it still features the signature inlaid gold dot on the side of the body. The company name, model and serial number are printed near the base of the mic, along with a 'P48' powering identifier, and a CE certification logo on the reverse side.

At the top of the mic body is a removable DC-biased capacitor capsule which was designed, developed and manufactured entirely by Rode in Australia — and the company are understandably very proud of it. It is known internally as the TF-45C and it took five years to perfect, first appearing in the NT‑SF1 Ambisonic microphone last year.

Measuring about 16mm in height, this capsule features a neat ring of tiny holes around its lower portion to provide sound entry to the rear of the diaphragm, enabling its nominally cardioid polar response. Although Rode haven't stated as much publicly, it is logical to assume that other capsules with different polar patterns must surely be in development. However, since the current cardioid capsule doesn't have any identifying markings to note its polar pattern, swapping the capsule for other directional variants could prove somewhat confusing! (An omni capsule would probably omit the redundant ring port holes, and so would hopefully be easy to recognise.)

The front of this sophisticated half-inch capsule is protected by a fine wire–mesh grille, through which can be seen the array of precision-machined holes in the capsule's brass plates — manufactured to less than one–micron tolerances to ensure consistency in production and resulting in typical capsule variations within fractions of a decibel, apparently.

However, important as it is, the capsule is only one component in the complete microphone, and the impedance-converting electronics housed inside the mic body play an equally important role in the overall sound quality, as well as in the microphone's real-world usability. Again, the electronics were all developed in-house, and the circuit design is bespoke for the TF‑5 (and quite different from those in the NT‑SF1). A J-FET serves as the front‑end of the impedance converter stage, with a balanced output buffer based on bi-polar junction transistors, all constructed using surface-mount components. An internal DC-DC converter steps up the phantom power to provide a DC bias on the capsule of around 54 volts.

While I've always loved the sound of the KM84s, after using the TF‑5s for a while I started to feel the vintage Neumanns sounded a little closed-in and even congested!

Specs Appeal

Apparently, the circuit design prioritises very low self-noise and distortion, as well as tonal neutrality and transparency, which I'd say it achieves admirably. The equivalent noise figure is 14dBA SPL, which is quieter than a great many comparable small-diaphragm mics, while at the loud end the specifications claim it can manage better than 135dB for 1 percent THD.

Confusingly, the figure printed in the initial launch specifications (and the supplied user handbook) was just 120dB SPL, and when I started testing the review microphones it was immediately obvious to me that this published specification had to be wrong. So, I queried it directly with Rode, whereupon it was discovered that this was actually just a 'place holder' value that had, most unfortunately, been overlooked and not updated.

This lead to a flurry of activity in Australia and the UK, testing production TF‑5s both in-house and at an independent facility to ascertain the actual performance figure. The results are maximum SPL figures of 133dB SPL for 0.5 percent THD, and 139dB SPL for 1 percent THD — which makes much more sense! Again, this level of performance is comfortably on a par with similar microphones from other high-end manufacturers.

Whereas most small–diaphragm microphones require a phantom power current of between, say, 2 and 4 mA, the Rode operates with a relatively high phantom supply current to achieve its low noise and distortion performance, specified as 7mA. Although this is well within the maximum allowed by the P48 specification, and is certainly not a problem for competently designed preamps and recorders, it is worth bearing in mind that there are some budget preamps, mixers, and battery-powered recorders that simply can't sustain this high current requirement — although anyone purchasing a stereo set of TF‑5s is unlikely to partner them with inadequate budget equipment! Moreover, Rode are certainly not alone in making 'thirsty' microphones — CAD, Earthworks, Electro–Voice and Oktava all make microphones that draw even higher current from the phantom power supply.

A useful side-effect of the way in which the microphone's electronics have been designed is that the TF‑5 has a high sensitivity, specified as 35mV/Pa. This makes the mic quite 'hot' — about 6dB higher than most comparable mics — but this brings further noise advantages because the receiving mic preamp will require less gain than when partnered with many alternative manufacturers' microphones in the same situation.

The mic has no high-pass filtering option to correct for proximity effect, nor a protective attenuator pad, but neither do the Neumann mics, and I didn't find the need for either during use.

Compare & Contrast

I mentioned earlier the inevitable comparison with Neumann's KM mics, and I expect you'll want to know how the TF‑5 stands against them. Well, in terms of the self-noise specifications the TF‑5 is 3dB quieter than the original KM84 and about the same as the KM184, but its output is also 7dB hotter than the latter and 10dB more than the former.

Moving on to the Rode's maximum SPL capability (for 0.5 percent THD), this is almost 15dB higher than the venerable KM84, but 5dB below the KM184. And the Neumann mics definitely win out on the phantom power consumption, being rated at a miniscule 0.4mA for the KM84 and 2.3mA for the KM184.

Comparing the published frequency responses for the Neumann's, the KM184 is much leaner at the bottom end and has a broad but modest 2dB presence peak centred on 8kHz, while the older KM84 is more tonally neutral overall. And looking at the polar patterns, the KM184 has a slightly narrower cardioid polar pattern at higher frequencies with better rearward rejection, whereas the original KM84 has a slightly more neutral off-axis response but not quite such a good rear null.

Relating these to the Rode is interesting. While the TF‑5 does exhibit a gentle HF lift of 2dB or so — probably due to the inherent diaphragm resonance — it's centred on about 16kHz and is almost entirely contained above 10kHz. This gives an impression of airiness and precise transient crispness, rather than a bright presence boost. The TF‑5's low–end response is also strong and solid, being broadly flat down to about 40Hz with just a mild dip around 80Hz.

The polar response is equally tidy, with very good rear rejection throughout most of the bandwidth and — critically — an extremely consistent off-axis response which translates to a neutral and uncoloured pickup of spill, as well as very accurate and stable stereo images when used in a coincident or near-spaced stereo array.

In Use

When I spoke to Tony Faulkner about the TF‑5s he explained that, to him, many of the popular small-diaphragm cardioids sound 'squawky' and lean, as though they have a 50Hz high-pass filter applied all the time — and this characteristic is especially noticeable for off-axis sound sources. So it was with his direct guidance that Rode developed the TF‑5's capsule with the specific aim of minimising any tendency towards that kind of 'squawkiness'. Furthermore, the capsule was intentionally designed to be slightly 'leaky' (in terms of sound reaching the rear of the diaphragm) which, although compromising the low-frequency cardioid pattern slightly, helps to give it a smoother and fuller-bodied sound.

To my ears, the TF‑5 has a beguiling character; it sounds more flattering than clinical, and full yet natural at the low end with a pleasingly open and effortless extension at the high end. Principally, though, it also sounds neutral and uncoloured, and there is absolutely no hint of any brashness or harshness even when close-miking loud sources. The proximity effect is well controlled too, so that it doesn't overwhelm when close-miking, but the mics don't sound thin when used at a distance.

I compared the TF‑5s directly against my own vintage Neumann KM84s and current KM184s on a variety of typical sources including piano, choir, percussion, and acoustic guitar, and I know Tony has used TF‑5s on several recent projects including Symphonic Brass of London, the Band of the Royal Marines, and orchestral percussion and drum kits — these all being about as demanding as it gets in his line of work.

Overall, I found the TF‑5s delivered a very attractive and musical sound in all applications, with a prevailing character of being slightly fuller and more open-sounding than either of the Neumanns. Indeed, while I've always loved the sound of the KM84s, after using the TF‑5s for a while I started to feel the vintage Neumanns sounded a little closed-in and even congested! I hear shouts of heresy — but the TF‑5s really are that good. In simple stereo arrays I found the TF‑5s created well-defined stereo images with a consistent sound character for sources positioned across the full recording angle, and a very natural sense of depth and perspective.

Although Rode's new TF‑5 microphones are unquestionably far more expensive than other models in the marque, I think the price is a very fair one given the exceptional sound and build quality, which are genuinely comparable with the likes of established high-end models from Neumann and Schoeps — and the TF‑5 currently falls mid-way in cost (in the UK) between those two particular offerings.

Peter Freedman and his whole team can be very proud indeed of their achievements with the TF‑5, which sets a new benchmark both for the company and the professional microphone market as a whole. The budget upstart has evolved into a serious and capable contender and I, for one, am very excited about what is still to come.

Raising The Bar

The TF‑5 mics are currently only available as part of a stereo set, which includes mic clips, windshields and a tough plastic stereo bar.The TF‑5 mics are currently only available as part of a stereo set, which includes mic clips, windshields and a tough plastic stereo bar.

The Rode stereo bar is an individual take on a fairly familiar product, measuring roughly 240mm wide overall, and accommodating a maximum mount spacing of 200mm. This all-plastic (but very tough) stereo bar has a central mic–stand mounting point with a 5/8-inch thread and removable 3/8-inch insert. The bar is marked on both sides with spacing dimensions for the mounts at 10, 15, 17 (ORTF) and 20 cm, and on top with angle marks for 90 (X–Y) and 110 (ORTF) degrees.

Two 3/8-inch threaded rods with large plastic knobs at the bottom extend up through each half of the bar, held in place by chunky 23mm-high captive plastic collars. Microphone mounts can be screwed onto these rods and they tighten against the plastic collars, which means they end up being quite a long way above the bar level. The result could be considered bulky, and might impede sight lines in some cases.

However, there are images on the Rode website that show the plastic collars placed below the bar. Relocating them in this way is not difficult and this configuration does reduce the top-heavy look of the assembly considerably. Unfortunately, though, the stereo bar won't then fit into the foam cut-out in the TF‑5 box packaging. The collars can also be placed one above and one below, which allows the mics to overlap each other while remaining horizontal (see header picture).

While this stereo bar does the job well enough, its crude bulkiness and plastic construction seem at odds with the dainty elegance of the TF‑5s.

Pros

  • High-quality microphones easily on a par with the intended competition.
  • Very natural and beguiling sound character.
  • Good technical performance.
  • Very clean and natural off-axis sound.
  • Unusually full and extended bass response for an SDC cardioid mic.
  • Very open and airy high-end response.
  • Supplied with stereo bar.

Cons

  • Phantom current requirement higher than most.
  • The included stereo bar is rather less elegant and refined than the microphones.
  • Stereo set supplied in a cardboard box.

Summary

Rode have succeeded in taking on the European standard-setters to produce a small-diaphragm capacitor microphone that genuinely matches or betters the performance expected in this sector of the high-end recording market.

information

£1499 including VAT.

Source Distribution +44 (0)20 8962 5080

sales@sourcedistribution.co.uk

www.sourcedistribution.co.uk

www.rode.com

$1299

Rode USA +1 562 364 7400

info@rode.com

www.rode.com

Published October 2019