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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."

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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!

If you live within a few miles of the TV transmitters serving your area, a small indoor antenna may do the job for you. If not you'll need an outdoor antenna.

To learn what type of HDTV 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 HD antenna to use for good reception.

Full Story

Choosing & Installing an Antenna for HDTV

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 HDTV 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 HD antennas and tell you which ones perform best under various reception conditions. 

Reasons to add an HDTV antenna

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 HD 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.

Direction, distance and terrain effect your TV signal

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 HD 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 HDTV 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 HD antenna selection and installation become essential.

TV signals can bend in the lower atmosphere

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 HDTV 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 vs. multidirectional vs. omnidirectional antennas

Directional HD 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.

sources of multipath interference

When TV signals bounce off objects on their way from the transmitter to your HDTV antenna they create reflections, which your HD 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

Mohu Leaf 30

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 HD 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.

Channel Master 4228HD

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 HDTV 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

Channel Master 3414 distribution amplifier

This compact amplifier lets you distribute amplified antenna (and cable) signals to as many as four TVs.

One way to help HDTV 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 HD 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.

Last updated 9/6/2017
  • Matt from MechanicsvilleMD

    Posted on 4/23/2015

    I am confused. I'm seeing "amplified" over-the-air antennas on Amazon. Does this mean I have to run electricity to the antenna on the roof? Please advise. I'm less than 40 miles from Washington DC, I don't THINK I need an amplified antenna, do I?

  • Peter G from Charlotte NC

    Posted on 4/30/2015

    To Matt from M'ville The power for the amplifier can be carried up the same coax cable that the signal is coming down form the antenna on. The amplifier shoudl be placed as close to the antenna as possible to amplify the signal before cable losses. A power inserter can be located at a convenient location in the house where the coax comes out (near the TV or at a splitter). At 40 miles from DC, you will likley need a good attic or rooftop antenna and may find amplifying the signal is helpful. Be aware that the amplifier is really only strengthening the signal for long cable runs and splitters. The signal itself will be a function of the antenna and its location.

  • Don

    Posted on 5/1/2015

    "Coax cable is superior to twin-lead in every way and should be used if possible." I'm no expert, just a guy who has used both, and I would bet that in the experience of most OTA enthusiasts (of the ones that are attentive to detail only) would show that the above statement just isn't true. This is especially true of using a small "outdoor" antenna indoors (I am not speaking of the typical "indoor antenna"). "Twin-lead is not shielded and the entire length of wire can act like an antenna, which may cause reception problems."...or it picks up more stations than coax because coax is so shielded that suffocates the entire purpose which is to pick up signals. "Coax cable is shielded, which prevents signals from leaking into or out of your system. Coax cable is also unaffected by your home's electrical wiring or by contact with metal objects. And coax has a much longer lifespan than twin-lead." Coax was designed for carrying steady signals from the line source, it is not made for Over-The-Air.

  • bill from goodysville

    Posted on 5/16/2015

    Matt ....the amplifier goes in the line going to your tv ...so no you don't need electric to your roof......if you get one of those antennas that turn with a motor they use the coax cable to feed the motor with electric

  • Peter Batista from Oakton VA

    Posted on 5/22/2015

    For someone that has been tracking your work since the days when you would spec car dimensions for sound equipment in your magazine, this is excellent and continues to show the quality of your work. Thanks!

  • wayne davies from houston, tx 77090

    Posted on 7/15/2015

    on either n indoor or outdoor antenna can you watch one program and record a different program?

  • Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/15/2015

    Wayne, you sure can. The Channel Master CM-7500TB1 DVR+ connected to an antenna will let you do it.

  • Richard Mcintee from Greenwood, Ms

    Posted on 8/22/2015

    So informative, to the point

  • Sandy from Painesville ohio

    Posted on 9/26/2015

    Can we use the cable already installed from a Direct tv dish?

  • Hamradio from Denver

    Posted on 10/8/2015

    There is no such thing as a HD antenna. Your rabbit ear antenna work just fine, you just need a converter, and all new tv's have them now.

  • Ed Dougherty from Philadelphia

    Posted on 3/18/2016

    I want to 2nd Mr Batista's comment, Jeff, that is outstanding research, reporting and insight. Particularly liked the earlier reference to OTA fans (Don). Indeed, there's lots of us, and in great measure because, yes, the picture really is better, indeed, the best out there. Line up a good antennae setup with a potent 4K TV and you're really cooking with gas, an excellent viewing (and audio!) experience. Love the work that you did here, Jeff, by far the most definitive I've seen, with excellent translation skills down to the general population. Well done.

  • Earl Adamy from Goodyear

    Posted on 5/22/2016

    I am surprised that Crutchfield is still recommending the Channel Master DRV+. When introduced, it was a little bit ahead of its competitors but has now fallen miserably behind; especially for households with more than one TV. The Tablo 2 or 4 tuner units with a 2TB WD Elements Drive can service an entire home using Roku which also brings access to another 1800+- channels of free and subscription programming ... all from one remote. My second choice would be the Tivo Romaio + Tivo Mini. CM DVR+ would be a distant third.

  • Bill from Santa Fe

    Posted on 6/1/2016

    Has anyone here using outdoor antennas experienced any lightning-strike incidents? Has anyone here taken precautions with regard to lightning?

  • Charles (KY2V) from Jackson,KY

    Posted on 9/17/2016

    See DX Engineering online for great grounding equipment and information on grounding. DX Engineering mainly supplies Amateur (Ham) radio operators but anyone can buy their grounding equipment and most of their other ham radio equipment. An Amateur radio license is required to purchase linear amplifiers from DX Engineering due to Citizens Band (CB) operators purchasing the linear amplifiers and illegally using them on the 11 meter CB band.

  • Tricia from Bradenton

    Posted on 9/27/2016

    I want to cut our cable and go with an attic antenna. We currently are wired through the house with co-ax cable with the splitter being mounted inside the attic entrance. Can I use the current cable co-ax to connect the individual tv's to the antenna or does it require another form of wiring?

  • Leonard Crawley from Goodyear

    Posted on 9/28/2016

    how many tvs can the "OTA" roof mounted antenna supply a signal to in a house?

  • Steven Hansen from West Hempstead

    Posted on 10/3/2016

    I have connected my DIY VHF/UHF outdoor antenna using the existing cable wiring to three TVs. I just disconnected the main cable wire at the splitter and connected the antenna wire. I have good reception to all, but the more connections from a splitter weakens the signal and also the TV tuners can make a difference. For example, my oldest TV has trouble with one channel that the others don't, and the newest TV receives two more channels that the others don't, all from the same antenna. I'm not using an amplifier, which might have an effect. I wouldn't add any more TVs to what I have now without an amplifier.

  • Paul from Lafayette,IN.47909

    Posted on 11/28/2016

    do you have an antenna good for 150 miles?

  • Karl Denninger from Niceville

    Posted on 1/29/2017

    You need to know the antenna height. Assuming the transmitting antenna is 200' off the ground and you can get your antenna 100' high off the ground you can JUST ABOUT get there to..... 30 miles. If the antenna at the transmitter is 300' up? Then you can make it a few more miles -- like three or four. 150 miles? Not going to happen at VHF and above frequencies. Sorry.

  • David from Los Angeles

    Posted on 2/12/2017

    The house I'm in still has one of those old roof mount antennas from the "olden days"... if I ran a coax from that to a outa tuner would that suffice?

  • Lyle Allen from Durham

    Posted on 3/9/2017

    What is the date associated with the article?

  • mort from overdale

    Posted on 4/11/2017

    In a real world 300 ohm line has less line loss so if it were to be installed correctly it could do a better job over RG6. Also almost every antenna has been designed to be connected to 300 ohm and will require a device someplace to match unbalanced to balanced 75 ohm.

  • John from Schenectady

    Posted on 5/20/2017

    The 300 ohm twin lead is balanced; 75 ohm coax, where one conductor is grounded, is unbalanced.

  • william mauro from lorain

    Posted on 9/10/2017

    johnfrom schenectady, I am a tv tech with over 30 years of experiance. 300 ohm twin lead is no good for anything. from my experiance it does not work good for signal transmission stick with coax. the twin lead always picks up all kind of noise from rf frequencys and there aremany souces of interference

  • glenn lambert jr from archdale nc

    Posted on 10/18/2017

    the difference between coax and 300 ohm twin lead 1' twin lead has a magnetic field either side of the wire that will ground if touched by metal. Thats why you MUST USE PROVIDED INSULATED 3 INCH STANDOFF WHEN RUNNING THE WIRE.....2...300 ohm has no shielding from all the interferences all around antennas now,.......COAXIL cable uses the center conductor to move signal and the outer sheild to maintain the intregrty of the signal, not a ground like most people think. the signal flows along the cable and the distance between the center conductor and the shield is calculated to a precentage of the wavelengths transmitted. also larger spacing means less line loss per 100 feet, thus all the different coaxil sizes.

  • Fred Chambers from Bessemer, AL

    Posted on 12/5/2017

    I purchased. RCA yagi type outdoor antenna for my mobile home. Mounted it about 10 feet higher than my roof. Mant trees in area. Only got 3 channels. Used a phone app to locate towers. Found 7. 3 ok

  • Yak from Bakersfield

    Posted on 12/11/2017

    Can more than one directional antennas be connected to one line, If cost is not a factor. Considering two months of subscriber service (cable or dish) will more pay for any hardware

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