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Voice Over Mics Compared: Neumann U87 vs. TLM103

by Dan Friedman on June 24, 2009

Neumann U87


As a voice over talent, choosing a microphone is one of the most important career decisions you will ever have to make. After all, you should consider your microphone to be an extension of your voice, personality, character and sound. Many voiceover artists breaking into the industry, as well as those with years of experience call ProComm Studio Services for advice on what equipment to buy for their home studios. When it comes to microphones we prefer the Neumann TLM103.

Neumann microphones are used in recording studios throughout the world for their superior sound and versatility. The Neumann U87 has been an industry standard in the voice over field for many years and more recently, the TLM103 has risen to prominence. This article will discuss both of these microphones and explain why the TLM103 is our microphone of choice for voiceover work.

Neumann TLM103The U87 and the TLM103 are both great sounding microphones but we recommend the TLM103 for several reasons. First, the TLM103 has virtually undetectable self-noise. At the time it was first released the TLM103 had the lowest self-noise available of any large diaphragm condenser microphone. Second the TLM103 is capable of handling high sound pressure levels. This allows the voice talent to get up close and personal with the microphone at one moment, than stand back and shout out that great car deal or promote an upcoming drag race the next. Thanks to its ability to handle an SPL of 138db the microphone can do all of this with a low risk of distortion. The TLM103 has a high frequency rise that begins just a bit lower in the frequency range than the rise in the U87. This rise, beginning just above 4000 Hz, gives the voice just a little extra edge by comparison to the U87’s rise (which begins at 5000 Hz), allowing the voice to cut through the clutter more easily and before any equalization is applied.

The U87 offers more choices including 3 different polar patterns (Omni-directional, cardioid, and figure8), a -10db attenuation switch, as well as a bass roll off switch. While the multiple polar patterns are useful in the music industry, rarely are they needed for voice overs. In the past, recording sessions involving multiple voice talents (where the figure 8 and Omni-directional patterns may have been necessary) would have been done in one room with everyone standing around one microphone. Today most sessions involving multiple voice talents are held with each individual in their own room, often in locations across the country or even around the world. This eliminates the need for multiple polar patterns.

The attenuation switch on the U87, when engaged, does (in my opinion) alter the sound of the microphone somewhat. Furthermore the TLM103’s ability to handle a higher sound pressure level (138db vs. 127db on the U87 with the pad engaged) negates the usefulness of the pad when comparing the two microphones.  The bass roll off switch can be a useful feature, but is rarely an absolute necessity.

The capsule in the TLM103 is based on the design of the capsule in the U87 so they are similar in overall sound quality and performance. However, with the reduced (yet unnecessary for voiceover) feature set the TLM103 costs less, which is the final reason ProComm recommends the TLM103 over the U87.

The TLM103’s lower self noise, its ability to handle higher SPL, its similarities and slight (yet pleasing) differences to the U87 and its lower cost  make it the “microphone of choice” for ProComm. Both of these microphones are industry standards for a reason and both can reproduce sound clearly and accurately. In fact they are so accurate that the biggest criticism of both of these microphones is that they tend to lack character. This criticism comes largely from the music world; however this is hardly a criticism, because in the voiceover world the “character” should come from you, the voice over talent, and not the microphone.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Mapel June 30, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Great article. I bought my U87 almost 15 years ago. It sounds as good as the day I bought it. I constantly get compliments on the sound of my studio. U87 into Onyx 1640, channel looped through dbx 160A (barely lighting the yellow light) and into my codec (Prima 120), Acoustic Systems 6×4 booth. I have used the TLM103 in some studios in Atlanta and liked it. I have recommended it to a number of VO talent because it sounds as good as the U87 and, since a VO talent doesn’t need the feature set on the U87, it just makes sense to pickup the TLM103 for the lower price. I probably would have bought one if they were available when I got my U87. All that being said, I truly think MY voice meshes better with the U87.

Peter O'Connell July 13, 2009 at 10:57 am

Guys:

As a TLM 103 owner for a while, I’m pleased to see you share your insight on the mic.

I have only on two occassions used a U 87 and it did sound great.

But having done professional voice over for 27 years including professional radio production for more than a few, voice over needs are few. The bells and whistles can be found in software.

Clean, pure and noiseless sound are all we need for our clients. The TLM 103 delivers that every time.

Best always,
- Peter

Vic Stathopoulos September 2, 2009 at 9:13 am

I have tried both U87 and TLM 103. They are both great mics. Personally find the TLM103 suits my voice better. My voice sounds too full with the U87 even if I eq. With the TLM 103 it has a nice neutral sound. I have also compared it to the TLM 49 which I liked alot also. I think my voice sounds more natural wiht the TLM 103, but I feel with the TLM 49 it sounds a bit more like broadcast voice. It changes it slightly. Its a hard choice, I think the TLM 103 is better. Vic

Carter Dimmock September 22, 2009 at 4:18 pm

How do you feel the Microtech Gefell M930 stands against the U87 / TLM 103 … ?? … frequency curve actually looks closer to the U87 AI than the TLM 103 does … Personally, I find the M930 not quiet as “harsh” as the 103 – but its all down to individual taste, I guess … And the pedigree of the MG mics could really be considered more Neumann than Neumann … Carter

Luis Fernando October 31, 2009 at 8:13 am

Neumann TLM 103 sounds like U87? No way!
U87 have a good transformer (tlm 103 transformerless), U87 have a GREAT capsule (tlm have k103)… TLM 103 is muuuuuuuch more brighter than u87.
The tlm 103 is good for low budget… but if you have the $$, go for u87.
U87 you will have the tlm 103 sound just ADD eq… but you don’t have u87 in tlm 103 with eq

GEORGE LEE November 17, 2009 at 9:42 am

THE U87I IS A GREAT MIKE I HAVE TWO UP ON EBAY NOW IN THE ORIGINAL BOXES Item number: 320449097690 THESE ARE 1968 VINTAGE FROM A SERIOUS AUDIOPHILES ESTATE.

Gary King December 2, 2009 at 11:43 am

U87 is the better microphone. Sounds like to me this is writen by and read by a bunch of voice-over people that don’t want to shell out the extra cash so they are trying to justify the lower cost Microphone here.
For most you voiceovers, if you have a good voice? you would probably get away with a good quality dynamic mic. with a good quality compressor or limitor with low noise. To set here and try to say that one microphone is better than another is all bull-crap anyway because we all have differnt hearing and what we think sounds good. U87 is a better microphone plain and simple, that is why Nuemann prices it higher. You think they don’t know the difference? But there are plenty of cheaper microphone you all can buy out there. Then I am sure you will find a place like this where people say how great it is. But to give back some here and not be all negitive, the TLM 103 does sound good as any good Nuemann microphone should. But most voice-over people like it because it is cheaper, but remember most voieover people have home studios, which means they are trying to cut back anyway.

Bob Stinman December 2, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Wow, that previous post is a little narrow minded. This seems to be an informative article about the choices a voice talent has and Gary just has a hard-on for the U87 regardless of the use or budget.

He ignores the fact that the real reason a U87 is cheaper is because it offers things some don’t need like pattern switching. He also ignores the fact that the TLM is the quietest mic in the industry. It accomplishes this by its transformerless design.

Sounds like sour grapes because no one is using his $55/hour studio… Oh and he really needs to take some spelling and grammar classes, too.

karla May 22, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I need to know who this article belongs to ….. it s to use for a work at the university but i need to know who the author is to give him credit

Brent Brace September 15, 2010 at 5:42 pm

I have both mics. U87 and TLM 103. The U87 is a little smoother on the S or sibilance. The TLM 103 whistles on women’s voices. The article ProComm wrote was on the money, however, concerning spl, a jet engine is at 120dB. Is your voice that loud? And even with no track, the human ear can’t hear inherent noise from mics over ambient room noise. I spent 20 years as a studio musician in L.A. and New York, and 22 years as a voice-over artist/director. We never heard annoying mic noise from any Neumann. And addressing the person who wrote about Gefell mics. I believe those are Neumann mics when he moved the factory from Berlin to Gefell during WWII. He moved it back after the war. Anyway. Both mics are expensive in the scheme of things. Except dynamic mics, or really cheap condensors. Oh . . .and don’t forget the Sennheiser 416. We have that one, too. It’s a wonderful mic for VO. Cheers, Brent Brace Westside Studios

Bryant October 28, 2010 at 12:40 am

I just have to say that after reading the article and the posts I am just as much in the dark as I was before reading the article. I have read and read and read and read. Get the point? I keep trying to find that article that convinces me to buy the TLM 103 because it’s just as awesome as the U87 and less than half the cost. But every time I find an article it’s full of arguments and opinions. All of which leave me sitting in the dark. The same darkness I was in before reading said article. Do you feel me people? I have come to the conclusion that sound is like food. What one person considers wonderful and a real treat is another person’s chopped liver. It’s all in how you hear it. Where you’re hearing it. What you’re hearing it on. Geez! Can’t we all just get along? I don’t think Neumann makes junk. I think we can all agree on that. Should one keep saving until they can come up with the $3000 for the U87? Or, should they get the TLM 103 at about $1100 and get going a lot sooner? Hmmmmmm. Seriously. I’m going to rent each mic and take each for a test drive. I suppose that is the only way I will ever know. Gotta drive it before you buy it. The only way to know if you’re gonna like it.

Dan Friedman October 28, 2010 at 11:00 am

First I want to thank everybody for their comments. Bryant, you are correct that “sound is like food” as you say. It is very subjective. There are microphones that some people like, that I absolutely hate.

I don’t want to muddy the waters for you even more but its worth mentioning that after you try both microphones, or any number of microphones for that matter, you will have to decide if the difference in sound quality justifies the difference in cost. Sometimes the differences in quality can be so subtle that you may not be able to justify the difference in cost. There are some $300 microphones that sound very good. Only you can decide if the $3000 microphone is $2700 better than $300 microphone.

Speaking of money, you are “on the money” when you mention taking them for a test drive. You should try before you buy. I cover this exact subject in my other blog article which can be found here:

http://www.procommvoices.com/wordpress/choosing-a-voice-over-microphone

and also in my book which can be found here:

http://www.authorhouse.com/BookStore/BookDetail.aspx?Book=292116

Again, thanks to everyone for your comments. I hope that you are finding the information helpful.

Best wishes,

Dan

Joel Block April 29, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Here’s the real bottom line as I see it: If you’re doing voiceovers, get the TLM-103. It’s the best all-purpose condenser mic I’ve found in 35+ years of work, not to mention the quietest (and quietness counts if you’re doing audio books and podcasts, as we are). Then, if you can afford it, get an 87, because sometimes you’ll be doing a session where the producer is just eaten up with 87s, and it’s a real plus to have it in your arsenal. And one of the commenters said he thinks the 87′s a little better at dealing with sibilance. I agree.

Darren Crisp July 9, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Here’s a nicely controlled test you might be interested in : ) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMppig0FBZU

Martijn Nieuwerf September 28, 2012 at 1:39 pm

If a producer or a client wants the quality of a U87, they probably also want the quality of a fully equipped and dampened studio. So in that case they’ll let the talent come over to a pro studio. For anything where the quality of ‘home’-studio-recording is good enough, a TLM-103 will be top of the line.

ssd studio pakistan October 31, 2012 at 11:24 pm

tlm 103 is an absolute,well worth the money microphone,i use this for my vocal sessions and have to say neuman is nueman,,,,thumbs up to tlm 103,,by the way i have 2 u87 to but money is not justified and background noise on u87 is greater

Chris December 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm

I recently sold my U87. I owned it for 5 years and used it regularly. I ran it through the preamp side of a UA 6176 then into a distressor, I have an Apogee converter so my signal chain is good. People were always impressed that I had the Neumann in my little bonus room studio so the cool factor was nice. Last year I purchased an Audio technica 2030 for about $110.00. I would record acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, and vocals with the U87 and then try re-cutting the same tracks with the AT 2030. Almost without exception, I found myself dumping the Neumann tracks and using the AT tracks. This really disturbed me because I paid so much for the Neumann and so little for the AT. I had a friend help me do a blind test of the 2 mics and again, I chose the AT tracks. Others also chose the AT tracks. There was nothing wrong with the Neumann and it sounded great but the AT just brought the “magic” that I never got with the Neumann (or any of the other condenser mics I own or have borrowed to test). I tried both mics with different vocalists, different instruments, and different players and chose the AT tracks more often than the Neumann. The AT tracks generally required less EQ adjustment and sounded better (more like commercially produced tracks) in the overall mix. After selling the Neumann, I purchased an AT-2050 which sounds the same to me as the 2030 (when using the cardioid pattern). I’m sure others will argue that the Neumann is a far superior mic but for my money, I’ll take 20 Audio Tecnica 2030′s instead. I would urge anyone to blind test all their mics. Sometimes our minds play tricks on us because we have to justify our expensive purchases to ourselves. You may be surprised at which mic is really your favorite if you are completely honest with yourself. I only miss the Neumann because it looked cool and artists were impressed. To me, the U87 is like a beautiful woman who only loved me for my money. The Audio Technica is a nice looking poor girl who makes me happy. I eagerly await the eminent bashing from gear snobs and would have probably been right there with you 3 years ago. BTW, money was not a factor in ditching the Neumann. I just stopped using it and banished it to the pretty wooden box. After a while, I realized I would not be using it any more. I will continue to search for the “holy grail” of mics but delightfully, for now, it is the cheap Audio Technica 2030!

Tom Hand June 28, 2013 at 1:03 am

After listening to the p|issing contests about which Neumann is better than the other, I will say this: I’ve had the opportunity to use a vintage U47, a relatively current U87 and a current TLM-103. The 47 was glorious. I completely get why it’s the holy grail. That said, The U87 is a fantastic mic. It’s also 3800 bucks. If you’re going to a studio where it’s in the locker and just part of renting studio time…go for it. But if you’re having to equip your home studio with the best bang for the buck, the TLM is DAMNED CLOSE. Dan got it right. It’s incredibly quiet and has the vocal boost in just the right place. I’ve owned the AKG-414 XLS which I thought (based on in-store demo was awesome) was the perfect VO mic for the buck. It was harsh on the sibilance. Traded that excellent ‘overall mic’ in and got the TLM-103. Siblilance isn’t an issue and my voice is presented in a clean and honest way. Be a purist snob about Neumanns if you want. But if you’re looking to do VO work and sound great…Dan’s the man. The TLM 103 is a fantastic weapon.

Rob Ellis August 9, 2013 at 8:42 am

Having had extensive experience with both the 103 and the U87ai, I feel they both have their place. At one point in my career I sold my TLM 103 to move on to a “better” mic. Guess what, it wasn’t long before I was missing my TLM 103. It’s a tempermental beast though. It needs a
quality pre-amp and the right gain staging to really shine. Oh, and position is KEY with the TLM 103. With my voice, speaking directly into the capsule isn’t the best way. No, it’s not a U87ai. It has it’s own sound which I actually prefer in some cases to it’s legendary big brother.

IMO for most voices, if you get the pre-amp and positioning right, the TLM 103 is one of the best bang for the buck VO mics that delivers that Neumann growl at a reasonable price.

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