Choosing the best HDTV antenna
Plus tips on how to find the TV signals in your area
Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer DJ at community radio station WTJU, where he is a regular host of the American folk show "Atlantic Weekly," as well as the world music program "Radio Tropicale."
More from Steve Kindig
In a Nutshell
Using a simple antenna you can start receiving local over-the-air (OTA) TV broadcasts that look as good or better than cable or satellite TV. And OTA broadcasts require no subscription — they're free!
To learn what type of antenna to buy for your location, visit the TV Fool antenna selector. Enter your address, and you'll see a list of local stations and notes about which type of antenna to use for good reception.
The Mohu Sky 60 amplified antenna can pull in TV stations as far as 60 miles away.
TV antennas may seem like relics from the last century, but more and more viewers are using an antenna to eliminate or reduce their monthly cable/satellite TV bill.
In this article, we'll cover the advantages of over-the-air (OTA) reception and explain how to find digital TV signals in your local area. We'll talk about different types of antennas and tell you which ones perform best under various reception conditions.
Reasons to add an antenna to your TV signal sources
Even if you've never used an off-air antenna before, there are several good reasons to consider adding one to your other TV signal sources:
- OTA signals are free: Aside from the costs to purchase and install an antenna, receiving over-the-air TV is free.
- Local TV broadcasts are everywhere: Although big cities offer the widest selection of broadcasts, over 99% of U.S. TV households can receive at least one local station; 89% can get five or more stations. You can learn which stations in your area are available by visiting the TV Fool website listed below.
- Over-the-air TV signals provide excellent picture quality: Cable and satellite providers offer hundreds of channels, but they employ data compression or other techniques that compromise picture quality.
Finding over-the-air TV signals
TV signal transmission is "line of sight." Getting reliable reception beyond the curvature of the earth (roughly 70 miles) is difficult. Mountains or tall buildings between the transmitter tower(s) and your home can also cause reception problems. So, the first step is to locate the transmitters for your local stations.
In addition to distance and direction to the transmitters, you need to be aware of obstacles like mountains and tall buildings.
The quick, easy way to get information that's specific to your address is to visit the TV Fool antenna selector website. Once you enter your address, you'll see a list of local stations. Each station has a color-coded indicator showing which type of antenna is recommended for best reception.
Now that you know the direction and distance of the local TV stations you can receive, let's see which type of antenna will work best for you.
TV antenna basics
No one antenna or antenna type will deliver excellent TV reception in every location. The main factors determining reception are the distance and direction from the TV station transmitters to your home. The transmitter's power and the height of its tower also matter.
If you live within a few miles of the transmitter, and the signal path is relatively unobstructed, you may be able to get solid reception using a small indoor antenna.
But as you move farther away, getting usable signal strength becomes trickier. This is where careful antenna selection and installation become essential.
TV signals actually bend a bit in the atmosphere, which can extend reception range beyond the usual line-of-sight limit of 70 miles.
The information below will help you zero in on the type(s) of antenna that should work best for you. Keep in mind that even in the same neighborhood reception conditions can vary from house to house. So we recommend purchasing your antenna from a dealer who offers no-hassle returns with a money-back guarantee.
VHF and UHF
Like analog signals, digital TV signals can be broadcast over two different frequency ranges: VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency). The VHF channel range is 2-13 — "low-band" VHF is channels 2-6; "high-band" VHF is channels 7-13. The UHF channel range is 14-51.
There are nearly 1,800 full-power TV stations across the U.S., including 1300+ UHF, around 450 high-band VHF, and fewer than 50 low-band VHF. If some of the local stations you want to receive are below 14 — especially channels 2-6 — you'll need a VHF/UHF antenna. We carry several models that cover the entire VHF/UHF range, channels 2-51.
What's the difference between UHF and VHF antennas? Mainly size. Antenna elements are based on the size of the waves they're designed to receive, and VHF frequencies are lower so the waves are longer, requiring a larger antenna surface to receive them.
Directional vs. multi-directional TV antennas
Antennas described as "directional" are designed to receive signals from one direction. "Multidirectional" or "omni-directional" antennas are able to receive signals from multiple directions.
Directional antennas are able to pull in signals from greater distances, and because they "see" in only one direction they are resistant to noise and "multipath distortion" (a problem created when an antenna receives reflections of the desired signal).
Because multidirectional antennas "see" in many directions they are more likely to pick up noise, interference, and multipath distortion.
When TV signals bounce off objects on their way from the transmitter to your antenna they create reflections, which your antenna also picks up. These reflections can cause "multipath distortion."
If you used the TV Fool website to locate your desired stations, you should have an accurate picture of their direction in relation to your home. If all of those stations are transmitting from an area covering a range of 20° or less, you can probably receive them using a directional antenna.
If the transmitters are positioned more than 20° apart, try a multi-directional antenna. As an alternative to a multi-directional antenna, you might consider combining a directional antenna with a rotor, which lets you remotely rotate the antenna to pick up stations in multiple directions.
Indoor vs. outdoor antennas
The popular Mohu Leaf 30 indoor antenna is small and paper-thin, so it mounts easily to a wall, a window, or almost anywhere.
Indoor antennas are generally small, lightweight, and simple to connect to your TV. While many people place this type of antenna on or near the TV for convenience, you'll generally get the best reception if you place it fairly high on a wall or close to a window.
The Channel Master 4228HD outdoor antenna will pull in distant TV signals whether mounted on the roof or in an attic.
Outdoor antennas tend to be significantly larger and are intended for roof- or attic-mounting.
In general, the larger an antenna's surface area is, the stronger the signal it will provide. The relative strength of the signal an antenna can deliver to a tuner is referred to as "gain" and is measured in decibels (dB). The higher the dB rating, the greater the gain.
Most outdoor antennas will outperform even the best indoor antennas. Besides their size disadvantage, indoor antennas have a height disadvantage. They can also be adversely affected by the walls of a house and even by movement of people in the room. Other sources of household interference include fluorescent lights and computers.
Amplified vs. non-amplified antennas
This compact amplifier lets you distribute amplified antenna (and cable) signals to as many as four TVs.
One way to help antennas overcome size or height disadvantages, or otherwise improve reception, is by amplifying the signal. The amplifier can be built in, as it is in many indoor antennas, or it can be a separate device, called an RF distribution amplifier, that installs in-line between the antenna and TV.
An amplifier that installs on an outdoor antenna or mast is often called a preamplifier or "preamp." Most experts recommend only using an amplifier if you need to. The potential drawbacks of amplifiers are that they amplify noise along with the signal, and they can be overdriven by strong signals, which can make reception worse.
Other good antenna info resources
If you know of any neighbors who are using an HD antenna, find out what type/model it is and how well it performs. You could also try calling local TV stations with your antenna questions. It's definitely in their interest to help their viewers improve reception.
The AVS Forum's local HDTV message boards are also an excellent source for info on digital TV reception; they're loaded with great suggestions and solutions to particular reception problems in locations ranging from big cities to small towns and rural communities.
Want more information or advice?
If you’d like more information or some help picking out the right antenna for your setup, give one of our advisors a call at 1-888-955-6000.