Long before cable existed, people had to use antennas to get over-the-air TV reception. Back then, antennas were spindly pairs of telescoping metal rods (affectionately known as “rabbit ears”) and getting them to work often required clever positioning, maybe a little aluminum foil, and sometimes a few interpretive dance moves.
Thankfully, modern technology has whisked antennas into the 21st century. The most popular types today look more like a sheet of paper than a robot rabbit’s noggin, and some even come with tiny USB-powered amplifiers built right in. You’d think, then, that choosing an antenna and installing it would also benefit from modernization.
Yeah, that’s we thought, too. But when we got to evaluating various brands and styles, we learned that picking the right antenna and finding the best place to put it is still one part science and two parts Voodoo. The key to success is to manage your expectations and prepare yourself for a little trial an error. In the end, a little effort goes a long way, and we think it’s totally worth it. Here are some tips we think you’ll find helpful as you hunt down a new HD antenna and get it up and running in your home.
Get a lay of the land
You can get a general sense of where you’ll want to put your antenna by visiting Antennaweb.org. Plug in your zip code and street address, and the site shows where your local broadcast antennas are relative to your home. It also attempts to suggest what type of antenna you might need (medium multi-directional, small directional, amplified, etc.).
Picking the right antenna and finding the best place to put it is still one part science, and two parts Voodoo.
We’ve had mixed results with the antenna-type suggestion tool. For instance, at our address, a medium-sized directional antenna would appear to be the right choice. However, we’ve found we can pull in nearly every station available with a small, multi-directional antenna. If you live in or around a major metropolitan area, you may also find this to be the case.
Once you know where the broadcast antennas are, consider the geographical landscape between where you live and those towers. If there are any large, high-elevation objects within your line of sight, or if you live in a deep valley, you may find that you’ll need to place your antenna in the attic, on the roof, or even up in a tree to get solid reception. Conversely, if you live in an elevated area, you may find you can pull in great signal, even if you are far away.
If you live downtown where there are a lot of high-rise buildings, all bets are off. This is because most of the signals you pull in are going to be reflected off of other buildings, and there’s no telling where they are coming from. This doesn’t mean you can’t get reception, it just means that you may not be able to get all channels from any single antenna location.
Picking an antenna
If you’ve done any research at all, you know there are a lot of antennas to choose from. We’ve had the best results using antennas from Mohu, Winegard, Terk, HD Frequency, and Antop. In our testing, the antennas from HD Frequency consistently came out on top. However, we prefer the style and durability of Mohu’s antennas — you’ll pay a little more, but we think it’s worth it in the end.
For those who live within 20 miles of broadcast towers, we suggest either the Moho Leaf Metro, or the HD Frequency Cable Cutter Mini. For those a little further out, the Mohu Leaf 30 and Mohu Curve 30 are excellent, as is the full-size HD Frequency Cable Cutter.
What about amplified antennas?
Amplified antennas are only a good idea if you live 50 miles or more away from broadcast towers. The amplifiers built into these antennas are great for taking weak signals and making them stronger so your TV’s tuner will recognize them and lock them in. Amps are also good for distributing a single signal out to several televisions. Amplifiers will not help pull in a signal any better, though. So if you are just barely getting a signal, an amplifier isn’t going to make that signal more stable. In fact, using an amplifier when it is not necessary can actually degrade the signal you are sending your television.
I live in the sticks. What can I use?
If you live out in the boonies, or are in a particularly precarious place, you will need to elevate your antenna, which means buying a mast, mast mount, and a long length of coax cable, and doing some climbing. How high the antenna must be mounted will depend on your situation. See anyone else around with an antenna set up? You probably need to go as high. We have had good luck with the Mohu Sky 60 in these scenarios, but you should also consider this 80-mile antenna from Antop for a kit that comes with almost everything you need to service three TVs (by tying into an existing cable distribution system .
Where do I put this thing?
This is the part where you need to embrace the practice of trial and error. There are so many factors that play into broadcast signal reception that the best place for your antenna might be the last place you’d think to put it. With that said, we do have some general guidelines to offer:
- Near the side of the residence closest to the broadcast towers — Generally, you should be better off trying to capture a direct signal rather than one reflected off your neighbor’s house.
- In a window — The portion without the metal screen tends to work best
- High on a wall — Conventional wisdom suggests higher is better
- Behind the TV — If you’ve got no problems pulling in reception, a tiny antenna like the Mohu Metro or HD Frequency Mini can be hidden right behind a TV. We’ve gotten better results placing the antenna toward the top of the TV rather than the bottom, where the TV’s electronics tend to live.
- Outside — Antennas like the HD Frequency models we mentioned actually look better outdoors than they do in, if you ask us. These indoor-outdoor hybrids can be tacked onto your home’s siding (see placement tip #1) and can often be tied into a home’s existing coax cable block, allowing for the signal to be split to several rooms. If you do split the signal, though, you may want to use an amplified splitter to maintain signal integrity.
Once you’ve picked a general location, or if you just want to experiment with several locations, you’ll want to connect your antenna to your TV and have it scan for channels. Based on your search at Antennaweb.org, you should know how many channels are in your area. When your TV is done scanning, it should not only tell you how many channels it has locked in, but which ones are locked in. If you see any missing channels, try a different location and re-scan. Rinse and repeat until you’ve found the best possible location.
Customize your channel list
Chances are, you are going to wind up scanning and programming channels you have absolutely zero interest in receiving. Most TVs allow you to add or delete channels from your list manually. Make channel flipping a little easier by ditching the ones you don’t want.
That’s it! We hope this little guide has been helpful. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. We think you’ll find the picture quality you get with broadcast HD is far better than what you get from your cable or satellite company. In fact, since it is uncompressed, it will likely be the best picture you get outside of Blu-ray discs.
Did we miss anything? Got an interesting antenna-related story to tell? Be sure to let us know in the comments.