Let’s get it out in the open right from the start. I am a complete fanboi for the Neumann TLM103. There will not be one word in this review that is in any way impartial or objective. This is my mic, or I want it to be, anyway. I prefer it to Neumann’s U87, even, though of course it is based on the same capsule. The shape is sexy; the grille makes me shiver. If anyone says the words, “German Engineering,” this is the device I see in my mind.
The TLM103 has a lot of five-star reviews and these are all wrong. The mic is clearly a six-star mic on the five-star scale. That’s how unreasonably partial I am to this mic.
As I will explain, I do have a few reasons why I feel this way. And despite owning thousands of dollars’ worth of recording gear, I don’t yet own a TLM103. I blame that on the local company that makes renting these a very economical proposition. That’s probably a good thing, since I would likely build a small shrine in my living room in which to place the mic when not in use.
I HAVE THE DOUGH, SO IS THIS THE ONE MIC I SHOULD BUY FOR MY ONE-MIC STUDIO? Yes. This is it. This is the one.
Setup and Usability
For a large diaphragm condenser mic, the TLM103 is pretty straight-forward. It connects via a standard XLR mic cable and requires 48V phantom power. There are no pad or bass roll-off switches on the mic and its polar pattern is a classic cardioid shape.
In applications, this mic does pretty much everything. I wouldn’t use it on a kick drum, though it has sufficient sound pressure capability to handle very loud sources. It is excellent as a drum kit overhead mic and for hand percussion. It positively sparkles on acoustic stringed instruments. I’ve used it on a cello in a live folk band performance and the sound was astonishing. A stereo pair of these is all you need to record any classical ensemble in a quality acoustic space, be it orchestra, quartet or choir. The TLM103 was also my choice for the vocal mic for a bluegrass concert where the three vocalists stood around one mic to deliver their transcendent harmonies. This is a condenser mic that bends the rules about condensers and live performances.
Words really do fail sometimes, and in the audio world, it happens most often when trying to describe the sound of a really good large capsule condenser. It’s a feeling as much as it is a sound. There are many mics that record a voice in a flattering way. Some of those are hundreds of dollars less than the TLM103. However, the TLM103 is not only flattering, it is so detailed that there’s a three-dimensional quality, even with a mono signal, that puts you in the room with the singer, and you can tell the singer is your best friend for the duration of the song. On an acoustic guitar, you can hear the inside of the instrument when using a TLM103 to mic it, as well as all its sounds outside too. This is like an extremely high resolution camera for sound.
That is one problem that the TLM103 can create. Deficiencies in your recording space can be hidden with cheaper mics. Not so much with the TLM103, although it’s a little more forgiving than a U87. I would suggest that, unless your home recording is acoustically treated and very quiet, you spend the extra scratch to get an acoustic isolator to limit room reflections with this mic, something like the CAD Audio AS32. Unchecked, this mic will capture the sound of your room, so you better have either a great room or a way to protect the TLM103 from reflections. (Read my guide on acoustically treating a room here)
Simply, this is how a studio mic should be built. It borrows a lot from the Neumann U87, though it has a different shaped body. The big grille screen shows the relationship between the mics. While the TLM103 is also available in black, that look doesn’t work for me. I’m partial to the Neumann nickel finish. Everything about the TLM103 is solid and precise.
One sad-sack user complained that the TLM103 sounded so good compared to other mics in the store but made him sound nasal and bad when he got the TLM103 home. Then he had the temerity to blame the TLM103! What he is describing is comb filtering and standing waves in his room. The TLM103 doesn’t simply turn into a pumpkin on the way home from the music store. This is a case of garbage in, garbage out. I am certain the TLM103 faithfully reproduced the lousy sound of the room it was recording.
Otherwise, the pattern of reviews reflects the nature of the mic. At $1,200, it is one of the most affordable ultra-high quality mics available.
I became a believer in this mic when I was recording a choral festival in a church. The various acts ranged from an a cappella sextet to a massed choir of all the participants, so with no option to change mic positions between acts, I needed a setup that was both capable enough to cover all sizes of choir, but which was also visually minimal to avoid distracting the crowd. I used a pair of TLM103s, one right side up and the other upside down right above the first mic. With the front of each mic facing the stage, I set up behind the conductor’s position and rotated each mic about 45 degrees left and right, pointing to the outside of the choir setup positions. That’s it. That recorded three days of the festival. I rolled off a little low frequency rumble and I rode gain, boosting for small ensembles and pulling back on larger groups. I still consider it one of the finest stereo live recordings I’ve made.
Not everyone has $1,200 to spend on a mic (raises his own hand). If you do, you can purchase a TLM103 in complete confidence you are getting a world-class mic. If you have an opportunity to rent one, give it a try sometime, if only to experience a gold standard of performance.