Have you been thinking about cutting the cord, swapping your pricey cable service for an indoor antenna and free over-the-air TV? Then you'll have to make sure you can get decent reception. And just like real estate, indoor antenna reception is all about location, location, location.
Ever since the move to all-digital HDTV signals, you will either be able to pull in a TV station or not; the all-or-nothing nature of digital signals means the days of attaching tin foil to an antenna's rabbit ears to improve reception on marginal stations are gone. The good news is that the quality of the stations you can receive is often better than it was with analog TV broadcasts, and perhaps even better than cable. So if you live near a major TV market, there’s a good chance you'll be able to get many of your local network broadcasts—such as ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, and Telemundo—using an antenna.
Outdoor antennas, especially those on a roof or mast, generally offer the best performance, particularly if you're many miles from a broadcast tower. But for many of us, an indoor antenna is an easier—and sometimes the only—option. Getting great reception from an indoor antenna can be a mix of science and art. Here are few suggestions that should help you get the best reception possible from yours.
Play the field
Not too long ago, we tested 10 top indoor antennas to see how well they performed for a dozen testers spread across the New York metropolitan area. We found—not surprising—that some models worked better than others. Reception depended on distance from a broadcast tower, the terrain, and the surroundings (nearby houses, buildings, trees, and so on). Some models were directional, so they needed to be oriented toward a broadcast tower. Multidirectional antennas, which receive signals from all directions, may be better for urban locations, but they might not pull in more distant stations. One surprise was that we found little correlation between price and performance; often the cheaper antennas did as well as, or better than, the more expensive models. What all this means is that you should try a few different antennas to see which one works best, so buy from a retailer that has a no-hassle return policy and reasonable warranty.
The height of your antenna is among the most critical factors in getting decent reception; that's one reason roof-mounted antennas typically outperform indoor models. (It's also why sticking one in your basement isn't a great idea.) If you can, try placing the antenna in an attic or in a second-story location, preferably a window. Just be aware that sometimes objects in the room, or roofing materials, can obstruct or interfere with the signals, so try a few different attic locations. The reality, though, is that most of us will probably place the antenna in the same room as the TV. So try a few higher locations in the room, and even the ceiling—many of the newer flat antennas, such as the Mohu Leaf, can be painted, making them a less-obvious presence in the room.
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Most antennas are directional (they're also called "unidirectional" antennas), which means they need to be oriented toward a broadcast tower. To find out where the local broadcast towers are in your area, just visit the FCC’s DTV antenna map (or some other sites, mentioned below) and then click on the station's call letters to see where the signals are coming from. (You'll also be able to find out how many stations you should be able to pull in, and their relative signal strength.) Once you know where the towers are, you can point the antenna in that direction. For me, most of the major broadcast towers were all in the same southerly direction, but it's possible you may need to re-orient the antenna for different stations. A multidirectional antenna can receive signals from all directions, but you may not be able to get more distant stations that can be pulled in by a properly positioned directional antenna. You should perform a channel scan on your TV to see which antenna location pulls in the most stations.
Anything that stands between your antenna and the broadcast towers has the potential to degrade your reception. If possible, try placing the antenna in or near a window, provided you don't live in an apartment building where your "view" consists of a neighboring building's brick wall. The second best choice is an external wall that faces the broadcast towers. If you live in a house, try to avoid large trees, sheds or garages, or other large obstructions. Try a few different windows and walls to find the best spot. When I was testing the antennas in my home, I found it was handy to have an extra length of RG6 coaxial cable—and a female-to-female coax cable joiner—so that I could freely move the antenna to different locations in my rooms. I also used some painter's tape to temporarily attach the antennas to the various locations before determining the best spot.
Many of the models we tested had amplifiers, which can boost signal strength to help pull in more distant stations. They can also be helpful if you intend to split the signal from one antenna to feed two TVs. But our tests showed they aren’t always more effective than non-amplified models—they can also amplify noise and distortion, and overload reception from closer stations. If you have an amplified antenna, we recommend that you first try it with the amplifier turned off. If reception is good, leave it off. But if that doesn't work well, turn the amp on and rescan the channels to see if reception improves.
Hopefully, these tips will help set you on the path to getting the best reception possible from your indoor antenna. But as we mentioned in our earlier post, the good news is that you don’t have to go it alone. There are several websites that can help you determine the reception in your area, and the location of the closest transmitters. (If you're buying an outdoor antenna, some can help you choose a model.) We recommend antennaweb.org, antennapoint.com, TVFool.com, and the FCC's DTV reception maps, which was mentioned earlier.
One last tip: Rescan for channels periodically. It's possible that a station has upped the power of its transmitters or relocated a broadcast tower and you might be able to get a station or two that were previously unavailable.
—James K. Willcox
Copyright © 2005-2014 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.