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The Insider Pick:
There are many circumstances that factor into an HDTV antenna’s performance, but in our testing, the Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse came out on top in terms of reception without sacrificing ease of use or aesthetics.
So you’ve cut the cord, and you love your Roku, but you still want to watch “The Bachelor”, “Masterpiece Theatre”, and the Super Bowl in real time on your big screen TV in crystal clear 1080p. What do you do?
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 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 this tablet” or “here are your best cheap laptop options.”
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 or buildings in the way of your nearest towers, those will 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.
How did we pick the best antennas?
The search to find a serviceable indoor antenna is different for everyone because we all live in diverse areas with varying signal strength. To find the best antennas, I tested several on the eastern edge of New Jersey, around 10 miles from the nearest broadcast towers in Manhattan. I set everything up as high as I could in a window facing the most significant cluster of signals. That didn’t mean the antennas were super elevated, but, as best I could tell, my path wasn’t obstructed too much.
Because location plays such a big role in how well these common indoor antennas will work, your experience with them may be different than mine. If you live in an urban, suburban, or well-populated area like I do, you can expect similar results.
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 antenna to a wall or window than mount a bulkier antenna on 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, 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 affordable models.
How to pick a good antenna
Signal strength in your area: 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 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.
- Indoor antennas get fewer channels: 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 fewer 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. That didn’t cause much harm with casual use, but it’s not to say you can’t do better. The idea here is to get enough of the channels you care about.
UHF vs. VHF bands: 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 is the band type most of the popular networks use. All of the models below were still able to pick VHF networks near me for channels 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 channels that had trouble.
- Mileage range may be deceiving: 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 in between your antenna and the signal tower. 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.”
Read on to learn about our top picks for the best indoor antennas you can buy. We have a great all-around pick, one that got incredible reception, a budget pick, a pretty antenna, and more. We tested all of these antennas to ensure that they are truly effective, but we also took user and expert reviews into consideration.