Best TV antennas for cord-cutters: Tested for real-world signal strength –

Cable and satellite TV subscriptions are becoming ever more expensive, so more and more homes are ditching pay TV in favor of free, over-the-air broadcasts. Digital TV typically provides between 20 and 60 channels depending on where you live, and can save you at least $1,000 a year, based on a typical pay TV subscription.

Folks who do are often surprised by the higher image quality they get from broadcast TV. That’s because cable and satellite services compress the video signal in order to reduce the bandwidth required to stream it to your home, all so they can cram in more of the channels you probably never watch anyway.

So, cut that cable, ditch that dish, and join the growing number of American households that are free from monthly bills for TV service.

Channel Master Flatenna 35 — Best budget-priced indoor TV antenna

Pros

Very low price

Well made

U.S.-based customer support

Cons

Won’t do much for your living-room décor

MSRP:



$10 (plus $7.50 shipping if purchased direct from Channel Master)

If you live close enough to the broadcast towers for the stations you want to watch, a less-expensive non-amplified antenna like the Channel Master Flatenna might be all you need to cut the cord. At the time of this review, we found that Channel Master itself was offering the best price on this antenna: Just $10 plus $7.50 for shipping. 

Read our full
Channel Master Flatenna 35 (model No. CM-4001HDBW) review

Winegard FlatWave Amped — Best amplified indoor TV antenna

Pros

Strong reception, clear picture quality

Amplifier contributes to good range

Amplifier can be powered by a wall wart or your TV’s USB port

Cons

Not the best-looking thing to have on your wall or window

Excess cable can get messy quick

MSRP:



$59.99

This antenna impressed us with its ability to pull in more broadcast channels than the competition. Further, those it did receive were a little stronger than from our runner-up, which should make for happier TV viewing.

Read our full
Winegard FlatWave Amped (model FL-5500A) review

Channel Master Smartenna+ — Best amplified indoor TV antenna, runner-up

Pros

Automatic tuning to receive the greatest number of channels

Push-on antenna connector

Sturdy design and build quality

Cons

Bulkier than other amplified antennas

MSRP:



$49

Best Prices Today:


$49 at Channel Master

The word “smart” gets bandied about quite a lot these days, but it’s more than just hyperbole in the case of Channel Master’s Smartenna+ over-the-air TV antenna. This amplified antenna has a tiny tuner onboard that can virtually change its reception pattern to pull in the most stations possible. We like it a lot.

Read our full
Channel Master Smartenna+ review

Antennas Direct DB8e — Best roof-mount TV antenna

Pros

Good reception of weak signals

Antennas can be pointed in two different directions

Easy to assemble

Cons

Large size requires a strong mount

Not designed to receive VHF TV stations

MSRP:



$128.97

The Antennas Direct DB8e’s reception is just as impressive as its looks. This is a large, heavy antenna cleverly designed to receive weak signals with two antenna arrays, or in areas of better reception to point to towers in different directions.

Read our full
Antennas Direct DB8e review

Antennas Direct 91XG — Best roof-mount TV antenna, runner-up

Pros

Good reception of weak signals

Antennas can be pointed in two different directions

Easy to assemble

Cons

Large size requires a strong mount

Not designed to receive VHF TV stations

MSRP:



$129.99

Read our full
Antennas Direct 91XG review

Winegard Elite 7550 — Best attic/outdoor TV antenna

Pros

Good reception of strong to medium level signals on UHF and VHF-High

Inline amplifier helps boost signals

Suitable for attic or outdoor mounting

Cons

Plastic mounting bracket feels a little cheap

MSRP:



$149.99

Best Prices Today:


$141.39 at Amazon |
$193.69 at Newegg

The Winegard Elite 7550 immediately impressed with its ability to pick up more broadcast channels than the competition at higher signal levels. It has a built-in amplifier and performed well on both VHF-High and UHF broadcast bands. Because of its size you’ll want this one in the attic or outside of your house.

Read our full
Winegard Elite 7550 review

Antennas Direct Clearstream 4 Max — Best attic/outdoor TV antenna, runner-up

Pros

Good reception of strong to medium level signals on UHF and VHF-High

Multidirectional reception for areas with transmitters in different locations

Sturdy mount with mounting hardware for attic or outdoor installation

Cons

No built-in amplifier, so you might need one for weaker channels

MSRP:



$169.99

Best Prices Today:


Not Available at Amazon

The Clearstream 4 Max is a little larger than our top-ranked choice and wasn’t quite as good at pulling in stations but it’s still a solid antenna. Its unique double figure-eight design is sure to look distinctive and it can receive signals from different directions, which is useful if you live in an area with stations in multiple places.

Read our full
Antennas Direct Clearstream 4 Max review

Do I need a TV antenna?

Putting up a TV antenna is one of the best steps you can take toward breaking your reliance on pay TV and saving hundreds of dollars a year. Most areas of the U.S. have access to between 50 and 100 TV stations that broadcast over the air for free.

As a bonus, they’ll make your big-screen TV shine. Over-the-air TV signals are typically compressed less than cable or satellite broadcasts, so pictures will appear either the same quality or better. All the major broadcast networks now transmit in high-definition, and in some areas, broadcasts using the new ATSC 3.0 standard–aka NextGen TV–are also available.

Select the “Signal Search Map” and either zoom in on the map to your house or try entering the address in the search box. I have mixed results with the search box so zooming might be better. Once your house is in the center of the map, click the “Move Pushpin to Center of Map View” button beneath the map.

Click “Go” and you’ll get something like this in return:

How to pick the right TV antenna for your needs

To find the right antenna for you, consider these criteria:

Which channels are available where you live (we’ll show you how to do that shortly)Choose which channels you want to watchFigure out which type of antenna you needSelect the antenna

As a rule of thumb, indoor antennas are suitable for areas with strong or very strong signals, attic/outdoor antennas work in areas of medium signal strength, and larger outdoor antennas are best for areas surrounded by weak signals.

Point your browser to the website Rabbit Ears to find the broadcast channels available where you live. This service pairs the FCC’s broadcast TV database with topographical maps to give you a detailed estimation of which signals will reach your house and how strong those signals will be.

Select the “Signal Search Map” and either zoom in on the map to your house or try entering the address in the search box. I have mixed results with the search box so zooming might be better. Once your house is in the center of the map, click the “Move Pushpin to Center of Map View” button beneath the map.

Click “Go” and you’ll get something like this in return:

A screenshot of the Rabbit Ears website showing television reception in Portland, OR.

Michael Brown/Foundry

The table above above looks complicated, but it’s really not. The strongest signals are at the top and weakest at the bottom. Keep this page open in a separate browser tab as we move to the next step.

The table lists predicted signal level at your home from strongest (at the top) to weakest (at the bottom). The first number shows the channel number advertised on air and the number in brackets is the actual channel number (for more on this, read on). Then are details of the TV network, station name and distance from the transmitter. Reception depends a lot on local conditions, but whatever the environment, it starts getting difficult above 50-75 miles.

The list also includes the direction of the transmitter, which is important. Not all TV signals you want will necessarily come from the same place!

The Winegard Elite 7550 can be installed on a rooftop outdoors or inside your attic, if your home has one.

Martyn Williams/Foundry

Predicting which antenna will work with certainty is almost impossible. The information garnered from sites like Rabbit Ears will provide a strong indication of what should work, but there are other variables at work.

In some areas, especially in cities or areas with lots of hills, signals can bounce off obstacles like buildings and cause interference, trees can grow leaves in the spring and block stations you got fine in the winter, and atmospheric conditions can alter the way signals reach your house.

Moving an antenna just a little to one side or up and down a window can have a big effect on reception. If you’re putting up an external antenna, one side of your roof might bring in nothing while the other side provides perfect reception.

Which channels do I want to watch?

Your next step is to figure out which stations you want to watch. After all, there’s no point wasting time trying to get weak stations if all your favorite shows are on strong ones.

You can check a TV listing guide to see everything that’s on the air in your local area and make a list of which stations you want to watch. You’ll probably need to enter your zip code and be sure to choose “antenna” or “over the air” as your TV provider in the online program guide, so you don’t get cable channels mixed in.

Once you’ve made your list, examine the Rabbit Ears results to find the channels you want to watch. Write down the number in parenthesis, which is the “real channel,” the “Direction (true),” and the color (green, yellow, or red). The colors will inform you if an indoor antenna will be sufficient, or if you’ll need an attic or roof-mounted model to pull them in.

It’s important to remember than an indoor antenna is always going to be a compromise. You will always get better results with an outdoor antenna.

Indoor antennas–like our current favorite low-priced antenna (the Channel Master Flatenna 35) and our favorite amplified antenna (the Winegard FlatWave Amped)–are typically flat, so they’re easy to set up, usually by hanging them in a window on the side of the house facing the transmitter. Some look different but the principle is the same: Install them in a favorable location.

Indoor antennas are typically fine for all the strong local channels, but if you want channels that are weaker or further away, you might need to go larger and put an antenna in your attic space or on your roof. For that, we recommend the Antennas Direct DB8e. If you don’t want to climb onto your roof, and you have an attic, the Winegard Elite 7550 can be installed either in your attic or on your roof. The higher you can go with an antenna–and the fewer line-of-sight obstacles to the broadcast towers you’re looking to tune to–the better your TV reception will be.

This TV antenna has a motorized rotator attached to its mast, which you can use to turn the antenna to point it in the direction of the broadcast tower whose signals you want to tune in.

Martyn Williams/Foundry

If you install your antenna in the attic, you’ll probably get slightly less signal than if it was on the roof because it’s an enclosed space, but it might be enough to get stable TV reception. If you hate the look of an outdoor antenna, then experiment. An attic-mounted antenna will also be easier to maintain.

The direction of the TV transmitter tower is also important. If you’re using an indoor antenna, you’ll want to put it in a window facing that direction. If you’re using an outdoor antenna, it should be pointed in that direction. As signals get weaker, going from green to yellow to gray, the direction becomes more important. If you want to tune in weaker stations from towers in different directions, you’ll probably need an antenna rotator. This motorized device will turn the antenna so that it’s oriented to pull in those weaker signals when you want to watch them.

Knowing the real channel number will help you select an antenna. TV broadcasting in North America is spread across three frequency bands: VHF-Low (channels 2 through 6), VHF-High (channels 7 through 13), and UHF (channels 14 through 51). Because of the different frequencies in use, antennas are designed to cover one, two, or three bands. Not every antenna covers them all.

What type of cable do I need for a TV antenna?

A length of coaxial cable cut and ready for a connector to be attached.

Martyn Williams/Foundry

The connection from your antenna to your TV is every bit as important as the antenna itself. You need a high-quality coaxial cable (“coax” for short) for the job. Coax has a center wire that carries the signal and is surrounded by a plastic insulator. An outer braid shields the center cable from interference, and an outer sheath protects the cable from the elements.

If you’re ditching satellite for over-the-air TV, you can probably use the existing coaxial cable from the satellite dish, but if it doesn’t work, be prepared to buy and run new coax. Make the cable a single run if possible because each time you connect shorter cables together using barrel connectors, a little signal is lost. The most common type of coax cable for TV is called RG-6.

How we test TV antennas

TechHive tests TV antennas in a location in the Washington, D.C. metro area. (Until 2020, we tested in the San Francisco Bay Area, so you might see references to that location in older reviews). The D.C. location receives strong signals from local TV stations, but presents several challenges: There are a large number of trees around to influence reception; some of the independent D.C. TV stations are weak and difficult to receive; and with a good antenna, distant reception of Baltimore market stations is possible.

Indoor antennas are tested indoors and outdoor antennas outdoors. Each time we test a new antenna, we retest our current top pick to ensure a fair benchmark.

We use a set-top box to scan for channels and record the number of RF channels received by each antenna and their strength. Each RF channel carries a number of digital stations, but the number is different per channel and can change, so digital stations received isn’t as useful a measurement. We scan several times and adjust the direction of the antenna on some rescans.

Our picks are the antennas that receive the largest number of stations with the highest signal level in both the UHF (channels 14 through 51) and VHF-High (channels 7 through 13) bands, which are the primary TV broadcast bands.

Cord Cutting, TV Antennas

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