Indoor HDTV antenna Guide

March 8, 2020
HDTV Antenna Buying Guide

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71yh8nitejl._sl1000_ AmazonSo you’ve cut the cord, and you love your Roku

Well, you turn to technology that’s been around for decades, and pick up your own antenna. You'll have access to major networks like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, PBS, and the like, alongside local stations, with comparable, if not superior picture quality to cable, and no regular fees.

The trouble with TV antennas

Which antenna you should buy, however, is a much more complicated question — especially if you’re looking at one of the many indoor, “set-top” antennas that are most common at retailers. Frankly, it’s one that can't be answered with any succinctness, the way you might say “just buy an iPad” or “check out the XPS 13.”

That's because the Earth and society exist. No one antenna will acquire every broadcast signal with perfect clarity for everyone on its own. At least, no affordable one you’d find in stores will.

Instead, it’s largely dependent on your location — if you have lots of hills, buildings in the way of your nearest towers, those’ll naturally interfere with the signal. The direction each broadcast tower is pointing plays a role, too, as does the weather, where the antenna is situated in your TV room (higher is always better), how your home is constructed, and a range of smaller factors you probably can’t account for.

Who this is for

Because of all this, my search to find a serviceable indoor antenna was highly subjective. I used each one on the eastern edge of New Jersey, around 10 miles from the nearest broadcast towers in Manhattan. So, not that far. I set everything up as high as I could in a window facing the most significant cluster of signals. That didn’t make them super elevated, but, as best I could tell, my path wasn’t especially obstructed.

Thus, this guide can only be directed toward a narrow niche of people. Generally speaking, it’s for those in urban, suburban, and/or mostly well-populated areas, who live relatively close to signal sources. That kind of environment is usually the most passable for indoor antennas, which I chose to focus on because, again, they’re the ones these users are most likely to come across when shopping. They’re also the ones most likely to have user feedback relative to their region, which isn’t insignificant during that process.

Aside from that, I’m presuming you want an antenna that’s easy to install and move around, and that you’d rather tape a lighter thing to a wall or window than mount a bulkier thing to a roof or attic. I focused on passive devices, too — stronger, amplified antennas can be helpful picking up more distant signals, but they aren’t always necessary for this use case, and they often aren’t the cure-all they’re advertised to be.

I also put some weight into aesthetics; if you’re really close to your towers, an old-school loop and rabbit ears could do the job, but it’ll be a little unsightly. Finally, I’m guessing you don’t want to break the bank, so I stuck to mostly affordable models.

More things to know

There are a few more miscellaneous notes to keep in mind before we jump into the picks. Let’s run through them quickly.

  • The number one thing you should do before buying an antenna is check out resources like TVFool and AntennaWeb. Neither are perfect, but they’ll give you mostly accurate representations of what the signal strength situation is like in your area, and they’ll help you see which channels you should expect to pull in reliably with a set-top antenna like the ones here.
  • Almost by nature, very few indoor-only antennas are capital-g Good. Compared to a heavier duty option that might go on a roof, they’ll attract less channels and suffer more broken signals. For instance, AntennaWeb claims 71 channels are available in my region. But even in that not-too-stressful environment, the most I got was 67 (with the Mohu Leaf 30). The majority settled in the mid-to-high 50s or low 60s. As we’ll see, my picks didn’t cause much harm with casual use, but that’s not to say you can’t do better. The idea here is to get enough, in a more convenient package.
  • It’s worth learning which networks near you broadcast in the UHF and VHF bands. The sites above can help you see the divide. Without getting too deep into the physics involved, most indoor antennas do much better with UHF, which most of the popular networks use. All of the models below were still able to pick VHF networks near me (like ABC, PBS, or the CW) without much issue, but it’s no coincidence that, on the few occasions I did experience breakup, those were usually the ones to have trouble. While most of the users this guide addresses should be fine, it’s something to be aware of.
  • Don’t put much stock an antenna’s advertised mile range — they’re best seen as broad generalizations that are quickly rendered obsolete by the many disruptive elements mentioned above. TVFool founder Andy Lee says: “There are no standards for how [manufacturers] specify the mileage rating, so usually if they have one, it's just kind of a shot in the dark. It's pretty random and doesn't mean anything.”
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