Over the Air (OTA) TV signals are what many of us grew up watching before Pay TV convinced us all we needed cable. Did you know you can still watch OTA TV for free? Did you also know that broadcast TV signals are in crystal clear HD? Furthermore, it’s free! We can all watch local TV channels without cable. All you need is an OTA TV antenna and digital tuner.
The majority of you already have a digital tuner built into your TV. Any television made after 2007 has a built-in digital tuner, as mandated by U.S. law. If your TV is older than 2007 and you aren’t ready to upgrade, you can look into getting a digital converter box.
Before we continue, check if there is an antenna already on your roof. Find the cable coming off your roof, and locate where it comes in the house. Connect that cable to your TV and scan for channels. Be aware you should ensure the antenna is properly grounded. If you don’t have an antenna or need a better one, read on. Click on any of the topics below to navigate to that part of the article.
- How to Choose The Best TV Antenna
- The Best TV Antenna for You
- Important TV Antenna Topics
- TV Fool: A Deeper Look at Signal Strength
- Signal Loss
- Where to Install an Indoor Antenna
- Antenna Gain Vs. Amplifier Gain
- Types of TV Antennas
How to Choose The Best TV Antenna
There are several TV antenna brands on the market. However, what matters isn’t the brand. It’s your location and direction from the towers, and in which band most of your channels are broadcast. Generally, if you live in a city or the suburbs, you can grab a $20 GE Ultra Edge TV antenna. It will provide free access to the major broadcast networks, and perhaps a bit more.
If the GE antenna doesn’t meet your needs, switching to a different brand of the same antenna type won’t show much. However, knowing when you need a directional antenna, or a VHF antenna, or amplification and which antenna suits your situation can make a world a difference.
Let’s go through the steps of picking the perfect antenna for your needs.
Get a Signal Report
The FCC has a great mapping tool to show you which stations are available in your area. It will let you know which stations have strong and weak signals in your area. It also indicates which band each channel is in. Each channel will have a UHF, HI-V (High VHF), or LO-V (Low VHF). While this might not mean much to you, I will explain why it’s crucial in choosing the right antenna.
The channels are ordered by signal strength in the report with strong signals appearing in green, moderate signals appearing in yellow, and weak signals in brown. See the image below as an example.
Indoor Vs. Outdoor
An outdoor antenna will always be better at receiving TV channels than an indoor TV antenna. I always recommend going with an outdoor antenna when possible. However, you will usually be able to pick up a TV channel with an indoor antenna as long as it has a strong signal and is in the UHF band.
I advise against blindly trusting the color-coding on the FCC website. While the website is extremely helpful, antenna performance varies with UHF and VHF channels .
UHF Vs. VHF
TV channels are split on to three different bands, UHF, HI-V (High VHF), or LO-V (Low VHF). The majority of indoor TV antennas are designed to pick up UHF channels.
When it comes to indoor antennas, I’ve had the best luck with old fashioned rabbit ear antennas when it comes to receiving a VHF signal. This is due to requiring long pole elements to capture VHF signals. To make matters worse, many signals in today’s digital world interfere with channels in the VHF spectrum.
Generally, I recommend using an outdoor antenna if you are dependent on receiving VHF channels. Although, there are antenna hacks like using a UHF/VHF signal joiner to combine your UHF antenna with a pair of rabbit ears for VHF channels.
Directional Vs. Omnidirectional
Directional TV antennas are antennas designed to pick up signals in the direction you point them. Omni-directional antennas are designed to pick up channels in all directions. This tradeoff is due to focusing the antenna gain, which is different from amplifier gain.
The Best TV Antenna for You
Now that we have a general idea about the things that matter when it comes to antenna reception, we can get into the best antennas to consider for given situations. If you want to know more about the concepts of signal reception, I go a bit more in-depth later in this article.
UHF Channels with a Good Signal
If there aren’t many hills and obstructions between your home and nearby TV towers, you should be okay with most Omni-Directional indoor antennas. $20 GE Ultra Edge TV antenna is designed to pull UHF channels in that signal range and should have done the trick. If not, your house may have thick walls or other factors interfering with reception. In this case, I would treat your TV signals as “moderate” instead of strong. Antennas like the Winegard Flatwave are also good options, but you will pay a bit more where a less expensive option can get the job done.
If there are only UHF channels in your area and good signal strength, then it’s hard to go wrong with an outdoor antenna. If you need to pull from towers in different directions, go with the affordable DB2e Bowtie Antenna.
UHF Channels with Moderate Signal Strength (yellow)
In these situations, I recommend an outdoor antenna. The type of antenna depends on the channel locations and the noise margin. If the UHF channels have moderate signal strength but are in multiple directions, you can use an omnidirectional antenna like the Mohu Sky. It’s the one we use, and it’s aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It’s also straightforward to install, and we get a couple of VHF-Hi channels with it.
Moderate signals are harder to capture. You may need an antenna with a little built-in “gain.” Think of gain as focusing the antenna in a given direction.
If your channels are roughly in a 180-degree arc of one another, then we recommend the Clearstream 4V. It’s multidirectional as is casts a wide arc and even adds signal gain in the forward-facing 180-degree arc. If you need a bit more gain, you can try the ULTRATenna 80. https://amzn.to/2Yi45V6
If you need even more gain, you can give the Antennas Direct DB8e a try. The antenna panels on this antenna can be positioned into optimal patterns based on where the TV towers. It also packs a bit more gain.
UHF and VHF-Hi Channels
While I was able to get VHF-Hi channels with my Mohu Sky, not everyone will have the same experience due to interference patterns varying by location. If you have issues receiving VHF-Hi channels, there are antennas designed to do a decent job with UHF and Hi-VHF channels.
For an indoor antenna, I would go with the Mohu Leaf Glide. Check out my review of the Mohu Leaf Glide for more information. It does a bit better job pulling in those Hi-VHF channels when compared to the $20 GE Ultra Edge TV antenna.
As for outdoor, the Antennas Direct Clearstream 2V is a good option. It pulls channels within a 70-degree arc and adds a bit of gain in that direction. While Antennas Direct considers this an indoor/outdoor antenna, it’s a bit too bulky for me to consider this an indoor antenna. If you need a bit more power, then try the upgraded Clearstream 4V.
If you need a bit more antenna gain, you can try the Winegard HD7694P. It requires more precise aiming than other antennas but will pull channels at long distances in the VHF-Hi spectrum.
Channels in Lo-VHF, VHF-Hi, and UHF
Some areas of the country have digital channels in the VHF-Lo range. If all the channels you want are within 45 miles, then go with the Channel Master CM3016. For longer distance channels, I’d try the Winegard HD8200U. Another option would be to get this version of the DB8e mentioned above. It comes with a VHF kit that adds two dipole elements with a signal joiner to improve VHF reception.
Important TV Antenna Topics
Now that you know the type of antenna you will need, I wanted to point you to more information on common questions concerning over-the-air television.
Over the Air DVR – Yes, you can record from your antenna. I strongly recommend it and review several options in this guide to OTA DVRs.
More than 1 TV – There are solutions for connecting an antenna to more than 1 TV. I recommend an outdoor antenna for this in most situations, but check out the link for more information.
Grounding the Antenna – This isn’t a concern for an indoor antenna. However, you want to ground an outdoor antenna. It will mitigate lightning strikes and other electrical anomalies that are possible, but unlikely.
Reception – For those that don’t want to read all the details and inner workings of TV antennas, I’ve put together a quick reference to help improve indoor antenna reception.
Antenna Installers – I’ve had many readers ask about antenna installers in their area. I’ve discovered an excellent service called Home Advisor that finds trusted home improvement professionals in your area.
Simply click this link and “antenna” in the search. You can then select “Install or Replace Antenna.” Fill out the form, and Home Advisor will connect you with certified professionals in your area to do the work. If you want to get in touch with a live person to put you in touch with a local professional, you can call Home Advisor at 888-605-2759
Antennas and HOAs – Your HOA cannot stop you from putting up an antenna. I explain why in my article on TV Antennas, the FCC, and Your HOA
TV Fool: A Deeper Look at Signal Strength
For those that want a bit more information than the FCC signal report, try this TV Fool Signal report. It gives us some numeric data on signal strength we can use to make rough calculations on whether we can receive a channel or not.
- Path – This is a description of the signal path from the tower to the TV antenna. The height placement will affect the type of path the antenna can receive. This is the last column under the “Signal” heading of the report. Below you will find the values found in the columns and their definition.
- LOS – This means Line of Sight. Basically, there is nothing in the way of the antenna and the tower.
- 1Edge – When the signal leaves the tower, it is “cut” when it hits a hill, mountain, or other well-defined obstruction. When this happens, the obstacle acts as a secondary, albeit weaker, source of signal generation. A value of 1Edge in the “Path” column indicates the antenna is receiving the signal after being cut by this obstruction. The picture below demonstrates this concept.
- 2Edge – This is the same concept as 1Edge, except the signal was cut twice before reaching the antenna. As you may have guessed, this results in a much weaker signal than 1Edge.
- Tropo – This is tropospheric scatter. Basically, the signal is refracted by the high level of moisture in the upper troposphere. Let’s not worry about these as they wouldn’t be cost-effective to capture.
- Noise Margin – This is the first column under the “Signal” heading of the report and is denoted by NM. This is the ratio by which the TV signal exceeds the minimum amount needed for proper operation, just before being picked up by an antenna. For the channel to be received, the noise margin needs to be above 0 when it reaches your TV. I recommend 10 dB to account for weather and other anomalies.
Signal loss comes from various sources and is measured in decibel (dB) loss. I’ve done my best to examine numerous studies of signal loss and put together rough estimates of the possible signal loss below. The following sources of signal loss would subtract from the NM;
TV – There is typically a dB loss associated with the TV. An estimate of 3 dB should suffice.
Cable runs – Typically, RG-6 coax is used in the US. The maximum DB loss in the highest TV frequency is about 5.6 dB per 100 ft. cable-run. Add a .5 dB loss for any un-split joint connection.
Splitters – Every split of the coax cable running from the antenna to a TV incurs the loss listed on the splitter. This is typically 3.5 dB, but to be sure, it should be listed on the splitter. You have to count every output on the splitter, whether it’s used or not. I go into more detail in this post on choosing a coaxial signal splitter.
Adjacent House –An adjacent house in line with the generation of the signal and casting a shadow either on the antenna or on the exterior wall that is in the path of an indoor antenna creates a loss. Various studies show a dB loss between 10-21 dB for signals within UHF and VHF frequency. Studies also show that raising the height of an indoor antenna will lessen the loss.
Tree Shadowing – This is when a nearby tree in line with the generation of the signal casts a shadow on the antenna or on the exterior wall in line with the antenna. Studies have shown that trees have a dB loss of 0-10 dB within the UHF and VHF frequency. A TV antenna installed at a lower height can improve signal propagation since the signal can better avoid the tree canopy. In rare cases raising an antenna can degrade reception. Often in these cases, a dense tree canopy can be blamed.
Home Penetration – This only matters for an indoor antenna. Expect a loss of around 14dB for a signal to penetrate a home and reach a first floor antenna. Installing the antenna on the 2nd or 3rd floor can significantly mitigate a portion of these losses.
Where to Install an Indoor Antenna
To figure out if we can use an Indoor Antenna, we will first figure out the available Noise Margin after estimating the dB loss using the information above. To do this, locate the NM field and find the lowest number for all the stations you require.
Locate the bulls-eye chart to the left of the table pictured below. Figure out where your antenna will be mounted. It should be pointed toward that tower when possible.
- Optimally it will be near the exterior wall closest to the tower. If this is the case, only subtract 14 dB for home penetration; otherwise, subtract around 34 dB to account for your house shadowing the signal.
- If there is heavy foliage that could cast a shadow on your antenna from the direction of the tower, subtract 10 dB
- If the adjacent house is in the direction of the tower and casts a shadow on the antenna, subtract another 20.
If you are left with about 12 dB or more after subtracting loss estimates, you should have enough of a signal to watch OTA TV. If you are below 12db, try and find a higher area to mount the antenna. This may be an upper floor or even the attic. You may want to consider the roof if possible. You can rerun the TV Fool report from a new height to test if it improves the signal.
If there is enough noise margin on the weakest signal, the next consideration is the antenna’s distance from the tower. An important variable when considering the distance is whether the signal frequency is VHF vs. UHF. Commercial antennas typically indicate the range at which they can capture a signal. It is a bit misleading as they usually specify the distance for Ultra High Frequency (UHF).
UHF frequency runs at a higher frequency than VHF or “Very High Frequency.” Truth be told, there is little an indoor commercial antenna will do to pick up VHF that can’t be done with just a pair of rabbit ears.
Typically your VHF channels should be within 15 miles, and your UHF should be within 30 miles for an indoor solution to work. This is extremely dependent on how much loss the signal takes before reaching your antenna. I have seen indoor antennas work over 50 miles from the broadcast tower.
The last concept we need to consider is the direction. We may or may not need this information depending on the antenna type, but it’s essential to know in the event we need to troubleshoot the signal.
To figure this out, refer to the channel table report once more. Now we are looking under the “Azimuth” header. Find the number under magnetic (Magn). Note the number next to each.
It’s also handy to circle the channels appearing on the bulls-eye for ease of reference. Now we have everything we need to know about the signal. We can now cover the types of antennas available and their strengths and weaknesses.
Antenna Gain Vs. Amplifier Gain
This subject can be confusing as there are two types of gain regarding antennas. There is antenna gain, which we discussed earlier as being inherent to the antenna. It mainly aids you in receiving a signal from the tower and can be added to your noise margin.
Then there is amplifier gain, which is added from a powered amplifier. This amplifier will not impact the antenna’s ability to receive the signal but will mitigate noise created by splitters, cable lengths, and tuners between the antenna and your television.
More about Antenna Amplifiers
Passive vs. Active Antennas – An active TV antenna is an antenna that has a powered signal amplifier. This is opposed to a passive TV antenna, which is without signal amplification. Active antennas will not affect the antenna’s ability to pick up a signal.
However, it will boost a signal that reaches your antenna to overcome noise in the line, splitters, and TV tuner. This “boost” is given in terms of a dB gain. Please note that an amplifier also adds noise that will impact the gain of the amplifier.
This doesn’t mean every antenna needs an amplifier. Strong signals that are boosted can overload the tuner causing the channel to no display on the TV. (Overload in this instance doesn’t mean “blow up.” The tuner will be fine)
There are also instances where an amplifier will provide no real benefit. For example, let’s assume all the channels received hit the antenna with 30 dB of noise margin to spare. That’s already plenty to overcome most coaxial runs to the TV, hence no need for an amplifier.
This brings up another critical point. Clean up your coaxial runs. Older antenna and cable TV installations used RG-59 coaxial cable. That has almost double the dB loss of the RG-6 used in modern installations.
If using splitters, be sure they are rated at least 5-1000mhz. Remember that signal strength is divided by the number of outputs on the splitter, whether they are used or not. A splitter causes a 3.5 dB connection loss on each output.
Types of TV Antennas
Before wrapping this up, I wanted to give a high-level overview of various antenna types. It’s important to understand that directional antennas will have a better range, but for typical indoor and outdoor home antennas, I would stick with the ease and convenience of an omnidirectional antenna if at all possible.
Modern Omnidirectional Antennas
Flat– This is the aesthetically pleasing antenna pictured below. They are easy on the eyes. They work well with UHF signals.
Stylish- Companies like Mohu have introduced aesthetically pleasing indoor antennas like the Mohu Curve. I’ve used it myself, and it’s one of my favorite indoor TV antennas. For a stylish outdoor antenna that does a good job in the UHF and VHF spectrum, I recommend the Mohu Sky pictured below. It’s the antenna we use, and we love it. It’s available on Mohu’s website.
Grid Antenna – These antennae are intended to direct the antenna gain to a beam typically not exceeding 25 degrees wide. These are perfect for those areas where TV towers tend to be in one direction.
Yagi Antenna – These are my favorite directional antenna. The beam width can vary from 30 – 80 degrees but packs a lot of antenna gain. These are great for capturing hard to reach towers at long distances, but will also pick up nearby stations that aren’t in the direction you are aiming.
Older Omnidirectional Antennas
These antennas still work fine for stations near your house. If you live in a metro area with lots of signals close by, you could give one of these dinosaurs a shot.
Loop – A loop is an omnidirectional antenna and is shown in the picture below. This antenna also contains a pair of rabbit ears. The loop is mainly designed to pick up UHF.
Dipole Antenna – For TV antennas, these omnidirectional antennas are typically referred to as “rabbit ears.” They work for local VFH signals, but not much else.
Bow Tie – The bow tie antenna is pictured below. It’s omnidirectional and can pull VHF and UHF. The bow tie underperforms on UHF compared to the loop antenna and doesn’t hold up to rabbit ears for VHF.
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