How to Choose A TV Antenna

Before Pay TV convinced us all we needed cable, many of us grew up watching over-the-air (OTA) TV. Do you know that OTA TV can still be viewed for free?  Are you aware that broadcast signals can be viewed in high definition? It’s also free!  Anyone can watch local television channels for free. A digital tuner and a TV antenna are all you need. 

Don’t be misled by TV antenna manufacturers. In case you have seen any advertisements about free antennas, you might want to read this HD Free Unlimited Antenna review in order not to be defrauded.

With any TV antenna, you can receive free over-the-air signals. The term “digital antenna” is a marketing term. Any antenna from 1950 will work with a digital tuner. ATSC 3.0, a new over-the-air digital TV standard, will also work with this antenna.

Most people already have digital tuners built into their TVs. The Federal Communications Commission mandates that all televisions made after 2007 have a digital tuner.  A digital converter box can be a good option for older TVs that aren’t ready to be upgraded.

Ensure that your roof already has an antenna before we move on.   Locate where the cable enters your house from the roof.  Scan your TV for channels using the cable. Be sure to ground your antenna. Here’s what you need to know if you don’t have one or need a better one. 

How to Choose The Best TV Antenna

On the market, there are several TV antenna brands. Brands are not important.  The location and direction of the towers, and the band in which your channels are broadcast. GE Ultra Edge indoor antennas are generally available in cities and suburbs. With it, you will be able to watch all the major broadcast networks for free.

You may not be able to receive more channels if you switch to a different brand of the same antenna type if the GE antenna does not meet your needs. It is important to know when to use a directional antenna, a VHF antenna, or an amplifier, as well as which antenna suits your situation.

Here is a step-by-step guide to picking the perfect antenna for your needs.

Get a Signal Report

You can obtain a signal report to learn more about the TV signals in your area. They can be obtained online. If you are interested in seeing which stations are available in your area, the FCC has a great mapping tool. You can find out which stations in your area have strong and weak signals. Each channel’s signal band is indicated as well. 

Every channel will have HVHF (High VHF), HI-VHF (High VHF), or LO-VHF (Low VHF). You may not understand why this is important information, but let me explain why it’s crucial for choosing a suitable antenna.

In the report, channels are organized by signal strength, with strong signals appearing green, moderate signals appearing yellow, and weak signals appearing brown. 

Indoor Vs. Outdoor

The reception of TV channels is always better with an outdoor antenna than with an indoor antenna. This is my recommendation whenever possible. If the indoor antenna has a strong signal and is on the UHF band, you should be able to pick up a TV channel.

The color-coding on the FCC website should not be blindly trusted. Although the website is extremely helpful, antenna performance varies depending on the channel.

UHF Vs. VHF

The TV channels are split into three bands: UHF, HI-V (High VHF), and LO-V (Low VHF). UHF channels are picked up by most indoor TV antennas.

I have found that old-fashioned rabbit ear antennas work best for receiving VHF signals indoors. This is because VHF signals need long poles to be picked up. Even worse, many digital signals in today’s world interfere with channels in the VHF band.

An outdoor antenna is generally recommended if you need to receive VHF channels. You can, however, combine your UHF and VHF antennas by using a UHF/VHF signal joiner.

Directional Vs. Omnidirectional

An antenna that receives signals from the direction it is pointed is called a directional TV antenna. Omni-directional antennas can receive signals from any direction. Their gains are focused, so they can receive signals from any direction. 

(Which is not the same as amplifier gain.) A directional TV antenna controls the gain by building the gain into the antenna. The gain of an Omnidirectional antenna is balanced to pick up all of the channels around it. The amplifier gain increases the volume of a signal already received, so noise is amplified as well.

The Best TV Antenna for You

Knowing what matters in antenna reception, we can look at the best antennas to consider in given situations. Towards the end of this article, I will go into more detail about the principles of signal reception.

UHF Channels with a Good Signal

You should be okay with most Omni-Directional indoor antennas if there aren’t many hills or obstructions between your home and nearby TV towers. There should have been no problem pulling up UHF channels using a $20 GE Ultra Edge TV antenna. If not, there may be thick walls in your house or other factors that interfere with reception. 

I would rate your TV signals as moderate rather than strong in this instance. You can also use antennas like the Winegard Flatwave, but they will cost you more than a less expensive option that can do the same thing.

An outdoor antenna is the best option if there are only UHF channels in your area and the signal strength is good. With the affordable DB2e Bowtie Antenna, you can pull from towers from all directions.

UHF Channels with Moderate Signal Strength (yellow)

An outdoor antenna is recommended in these situations. Based on the locations of the channels and how strong the signals are, the type of antenna to use will differ.  

You can use an omnidirectional antenna like the ANTOP AT-415B if the UHF channels have moderate signal strength but are scattered in different directions. It’s aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, it is easy to install and pulls both UHF and VHF-Hi channels with ease.

Moderate signals are more difficult to capture. Depending on your needs, you may need an antenna with some “gain.” Think of gain as focusing the antenna toward a particular direction. 

Our recommendation is the Clearstream 4V if your channels are roughly in a 180-degree arc of one another. It casts a wide arc as well as adds signal gain in the 180-degree arc facing forward. If you need a bit more gain you can try the Channel Master ExtremeTenna.

Antennas Direct DB8e can provide even more gain if you desire. Depending on where the TV towers are, the antenna panels can be arranged into optimal patterns. In addition, they are better at gaining signals.

UHF and VHF-Hi Channels

Due to interference patterns that vary by location, not everyone will experience the same results using an omni-directional antenna. You can get antennas that will receive UHF and Hi-VHF channels if you have trouble receiving VHF-Hi channels. 

If I had to choose an indoor antenna, I would choose the Leaf Glide from Mohu. You can learn more about the Mohu Leaf Glide in my review. In comparison with the $20 GE Ultra Edge TV antenna, it does a better job of picking up Hi-VHF channels.

A good outdoor antenna is the Antennas Direct Clearstream 2V. Channels are pulled in a 70-degree arc and some gain is added in that direction. Although Antennas Direct considers this to be an indoor/outdoor antenna, I do not consider it to be an indoor antenna since it is quite bulky. Try the upgraded Clearstream 4V if you need a bit more power.

Those who need a bit more gain can consider the Winegard HD7694P. This antenna requires more precision aiming than other antennas, but will pick up channels at long distances on the VHF-Hi spectrum.

Channels in Lo-VHF, VHF-Hi, and UHF

The VHF-Lo band is available in some areas of the country.  Go with the Channel Master CM3016 if you want all channels within 45 miles. If you are interested in longer distance channels, I would recommend the Winegard HD8200U. Another option is to get this version of the DB8e mentioned above. To improve VHF reception, the kit includes two dipole elements and a signal joiner.

Important TV Antenna Topics

I would like to point you to more information on over-the-air television questions now that you know the type of antenna that you will need.

Over the Air DVR – Your antenna can be used to record.

More than 1 TV – More than one TV can be connected to an antenna with a few solutions. You should use an outdoor antenna in most situations, but you can learn more about that by clicking on the link.

Grounding the Antenna – For indoor antennas, this is not a concern. On the other hand, outdoor antennas need to be grounded. Lightning strikes and other electrical anomalies are unlikely to occur due to this device.

Reception – If you’re not interested in reading about TV antennas in detail, I’ve put together a quick reference to help you improve indoor antenna reception.

Antenna Installers – Many readers have emailed me asking about antenna installers in their area. There’s an excellent service called Home Advisor that finds trustworthy home improvement contractors near you. Call Home Advisor at 888-605-2759 to speak with a live person who can connect you with a local professional.

Antennas and HOAs – You cannot be prevented from erecting an antenna by your HOA. The FCC, TV Antennas, and Your HOA explains why.

Signal Loss

Signal loss is measured in decibels (dB) and arises from various sources.  Below you can find rough estimates of the possible signal loss based on my analysis of numerous studies of signal loss.  Signal loss could result from the following sources:

TV – TVs typically have a dB loss. A 3 dB loss is a reasonable estimate.

Cable runs – Coaxial cable typically used in the US is RG-6.  There is a 5.6 dB loss per 100 feet cable run in the highest TV frequency.  For un-split joint connections, add .5 dB.

Splitters – Coax cable splitters cause the loss listed on the splitter to be incurred on every split between the antenna and the TV.  For sure, check the splitter’s specification to make sure it’s 3.5 dB. Each splitter output must be counted, regardless of whether it is in use. In this post, I go into more detail about choosing a coaxial signal splitter.

Adjacent House – The loss is caused when an adjacent house casts a shadow on either the antenna or on the exterior wall of an indoor antenna. Many studies have shown a dB loss of between 10 and 21 dB for signals at UHF and VHF frequencies.  Researchers have also shown that raising the antenna height can reduce the loss.

Tree Shadowing – An example is when a tree in a line with the antenna generates a shadow on its antenna or on its exterior wall.  According to studies, trees have a dB loss between 0-10 dB at UHF and VHF frequencies. Since the signal can better avoid the tree canopy, an antenna mounted at a lower height can improve signal reception. It is possible in rare instances to degrade reception by raising the antenna. It is often the dense tree canopy that is responsible for these problems.

Home Penetration – Indoor antennas only need to consider this.  Signals must lose about 14dB to penetrate a home and reach the antenna on the first floor.  The antenna can be installed on the second or third floor to mitigate some of these losses.

All other obstructions that result in a measurable decibel (dB) loss – Yes, this is vague, but any nearby obstruction can lead to a dB loss.

Where to Install an Indoor Antenna

To determine if an Indoor Antenna can be used, we need to estimate the amount of signal noise a station can handle based on the color coded signal strength on the FCC chart. The noise margin is an estimate of the level of noise. Generally, we can assume the following values:

  • Green – about 45 dB to work with
  • Yellow – about 30 dB to work with
  • Orange – Errors are few and far between. The maximum noise level permitted with these channels is 15 dB.
  • Red – A directional antenna with built-in signal gain will help focus in on the tower for this station

Using the FCC’s channel finder, you can locate your TV towers.  Make sure your antenna is pointed toward that tower when possible by using this information.

  • As close as possible to the tower’s exterior wall is ideal.  Subtract only 14 dB if the signal is penetrated by the home; otherwise, subtract about 34 dB to compensate for the signal being shadowed by your house.
  • If there are heavy trees in the direction of the tower that could cast shadows on your antenna, subtract 10 dB
  • In the case of an adjacent house casting a shadow on the antenna, add another 20.

You should have enough signal to watch OTA TV if you have a signal level of 12 dB or more after subtracting loss estimates.  If your antenna is below 12dB, you should find a higher place to mount it.  For example, you might put it in the attic. It may even be possible to put it on the roof. 

Assuming that the weakest signal has a sufficient noise margin, distance from the tower is the next factor to consider.  It is important to consider whether the signal frequency is VHF or UHF when calculating the distance.  The range of a commercial antenna is typically indicated on the device.  This is a bit misleading since Ultra High Frequency (UHF) typically specifies distance.

In reality, an indoor commercial antenna is unlikely to pick up a VHF station that can’t be picked up using rabbit ears. UHF frequency runs at a higher frequency than VHF, or “Very High Frequency.”

If you want an indoor solution to work, your VHF channels should be within 15 miles, and your UHF channels should be within 30 miles.  A lot depends on how much loss the signal experiences before reaching your antenna. An indoor antenna can receive signals from towers up to 50 miles away.

Last but not least, we must consider the direction of the tower.  Depending on the antenna type, we may or may not need this information, but it is important to know in case the signal needs troubleshooting. 

Now we know everything about the signal.  Our next step is to discuss the different types of antennas available and their strengths and weaknesses.

Antenna Gain Vs. Amplifier Gain

Antennas can have two types of gain, which can be confusing. Antenna gain is inherent to antennas, as we discussed earlier. Basically, it helps you receive signals from the tower and can increase your noise margin.

Furthermore, a powered amplifier adds amplifier gain. Amplification will not impact the antenna’s ability to receive the signal, but it will mitigate noise generated by splitters, cables, and tuners between your antenna and TV.

More about Antenna Amplifiers

An active TV antenna is an antenna with a powered signal amplifier as opposed to a passive antenna. A passive TV antenna does not amplify the signal, as opposed to an active antenna. A signal will not be affected by active antennas.

While this will not remove all of the interference in your line, splitters, or TV tuner, it will enhance the signal that reaches your antenna. “Boost” is expressed as a dB gain.  It is important to note that an amplifier also adds noise, which will affect the gain of the amplifier.

An amplifier is not necessary for every antenna.  When strong signals are boosted, the tuner can become overloaded and the channel will not display.  (In this case, overload will not cause a tuner to blow up.)

Amplifiers can also be useless in certain situations.  As an example, suppose all channels received hit the antenna with 30dB of noise margin. Therefore, no amplifier is necessary for most coaxial runs to the TV.

Another critical issue is raised here. Make sure your coaxial runs are clean.  RG-59 coaxial cable was previously used for antenna and cable TV installations.  RG-6 used for modern TV antenna installations has almost double the dB loss of this cable.

Make sure the splitters you use have a 5-1000mhz rating. No matter how many outputs are used on the splitter, signal strength is divided by their number.  Splitters cause 3.5 dB of loss on each output.

Types of TV Antennas

Here is a high-level overview of the different types of antennas. The range of directional antennas will be greater. If possible, I would still choose omnidirectional antennas for typical indoor and outdoor home antennas.

Modern Omnidirectional Antennas

Flat– The antenna is aesthetically pleasing. It is easy to look at. UHF signals work well with it.

Stylish–  Indoor antennas like the Mohu Curve have been introduced by companies like Mohu. It is one of my favorite indoor TV antennas, and I’ve used it myself. I recommend the Mohu Sky as a stylish outdoor antenna that does a good job in the UHF and VHF spectrums. Those are the antennas that we use. The Mohu website has them.

Directional Antennas

Grid Antenna – Antenna gain is typically directed to a beam that is less than 25 degrees wide with this type of antenna. Perfect for areas with a lot of TV towers facing one direction.

Yagi Antenna – My favorite directional antennas are these. There is a wide range of beam widths between 30 and 80 degrees, but the antenna gain is very high. As well as picking up stations in your intended direction, these are also useful in capturing towers at great distances that are hard to reach.

Older Omnidirectional Antennas

You can still use these antennas to receive stations near your house. You might want to check out one of these dinosaurs if you live in a metro area with many signals nearby.

Loop – In the picture below you can see an omnidirectional antenna, a loop.  There are also rabbit ears on this antenna.  UHF transmissions are mostly picked up by this loop.

Dipole Antenna – They work well for local VFH signals, but aren’t very useful for other signals. These omnidirectional antennas are typically called “rabbit ears” for TV.

Bow Tie – The bow tie antenna is shown below. This antenna is omnidirectional and can receive VHF and UHF signals.  Bow ties are inferior to loop antennas for UHF, and they are inferior to rabbit ears for VHF.

Final Words

It is almost impossible to predict with certainty which antenna will work. It is the information gathered from sites such as TV Fool that will provide a strong indication of what will work, but there are other factors at play.

There are some places where signals can interfere with each other, especially in cities or areas with lots of hills, trees in the spring can grow leaves that block your favorite stations, and atmospheric conditions can affect the way the signals reach your house.

Even a small amount of adjusting an antenna can make a big difference in reception. You might not get any reception on one side of your roof while the other side receives perfect reception if you install an external antenna.

Don’t be afraid to experiment.

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