According to our tests, the HD Frequency Cable Cutter is the best-performing indoor antenna you can buy if you live in the thick of a city. It outperformed 12 other models in midtown Manhattan as part of a test pool that included both amped and unamped antennas.
In Manhattan, the unamped Cable Cutter pulled in the most stations with very little interference and offered a perfect-looking picture for many channels. The antenna also fared well in our follow-up tests in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area.
However, it’s worth noting that the antenna didn’t perform well in our Brooklyn tests, where it finished near the bottom of the pack (although it performed decently in subsequent Chicago and Bay Area suburban tests). This antenna is also pretty big, costs $90 to $100, and doesn’t come with a stand.
If you live more than 10 miles from a broadcast tower, have a ground-level unit, or care how your antenna looks in your living room, you should go with one of the better-amped models that also did well in our tests: the Mohu Curve 50 or the budget but high-performing Monoprice 7976 MDA Indoor/Outdoor Antenna With Low Noise Amplifier.
The Trouble with Antenna Recommendations
TV antennas are notoriously hard to recommend; a recent Consumer Reports roundup concluded that they couldn’t really rank antennas based on performance.
You might be best off trying the cheapest antenna and then upgrading to our higher-priced recommendation if the cheapie isn’t up to snuff.
That’s because there are a lot of variables to consider: how close you are to a broadcast tower, which direction your window is facing, how many tall buildings are between you and the transmitter, what the terrain is like in your immediate environment, which stations are most important to you, how much you’re willing to spend, and whether you care what the antenna looks like. When you throw in the unpredictable performance variations between locations, it’s nearly impossible to come up with a “one size fits all” pick.
We knew all this going into our tests, but that’s exactly why we wanted to take on the challenge. So while we recommend the Cable Cutter and the two alternate picks for city-dwelling folks, be prepared to experience very different results in your own location. You might be best off trying the cheapest antenna you can find, seeing how it performs, and then upgrading to our higher-priced recommended models if the cheapie isn’t up to snuff.
Who Should Buy an Indoor Antenna?
Anyone who wants a cheap and easy way to get HD programming from major and local networks. If you have a standard-definition cable box—or no cable service at all—an antenna offers major perks. You should get one if you plan on watching the Super Bowl or the NCAA basketball tournament.
The antennas we tested are the best fit for people who live in a rented apartment. We only tested indoor and smaller indoor/outdoor antennas for this piece; you can get better performance with a bulkier outdoor antenna, but you may not want (or be allowed) to mount one outside and/or on the roof. These models can be placed in your window and are generally designed for a simple, unobtrusive setup. If you bought your HDTV in 2007 or later, it has a built-in ATSC tuner that will make the antenna work (as do many earlier models). You plug the antenna into your TV via coaxial cable, plug in its amp if it has one, flip your TV to antenna input, and run a channel scan on your HDTV. Then you’re done.
TV antennas are associated with the idea of “cable cutting,” but that’s not the whole story. “Cable cutting” is a misnomer, because these antennas only pick up major networks, as well as local and independent channels you may not watch much. You won’t plug in one of these antennas and magically get HBO or ESPN in HD—those are cable-only. You should get CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, The CW, Univision, Telemundo, and PBS. Depending on your metropolitan area, an antenna is also a good way to get free foreign language channels in both standard definition and high definition.
If you already have a cable box, there are good reasons to buy an antenna anyway. First and foremost, an over-the-air HD signal has less compression than satellite or cable box signals, meaning that if reception is optimal, it should deliver a better high-definition picture than the signal you get through an HD cable/satellite box. HD cable boxes generally use a more compressed signal that may introduce visual noise or artifacts to the original content. Second, if you have a standard-definition cable box, you can watch HD programming on the major networks without paying the higher monthly fee of an HD box.
How Did We Pick Our Antennas?
It’s hard to find anyone who reviews these things as regularly as other gadgets. Fewer media outlets compile updated ranked lists or test the antennas head-to-head. As such, we used a mix of sources to put together our test list.
First, we combed some well-known reviews sites to see what they recommended. None of the roundups we found were brand-new, but that wasn’t a big deal: TV antennas hold their value for a while, and new releases don’t appear as frequently. We combed through the antenna recommendations on Digital Trends, PCWorld/TechHive, ConsumerSearch, and CNET, making note of anything that looked like a good fit. We also used the last antenna pick and research done for The Wirecutter to point us down the right path.
It’s important to note that we didn’t consider everything on these lists. We wanted to concentrate on smaller, indoor, well-reviewed models, both amped and unamped. We ruled out the bulkiest antennas. This led us to Mohu’s antennas, Terk’s antennas, and Winegard’s antennas. We also included the AntennasDirect ClearStream 2—a bigger model, but worth testing because it was our last top pick.
Next, we wanted to see if we could narrow down or expand the field based on Amazon reviews. The Amazon reviews for all these models were between 3 and 4.5 stars—good enough to qualify for a head-to-head test in this case. Through the Amazon reviews, we also found out about the Solid Signal HD-Blade, which we added to the testing mix.
And lastly, we wanted to include lesser-known antennas that looked interesting. We found the HD Frequency Cable Cutter and Cable Cutter Mini via a Kickstarter campaign (they’ve since gone into production and are now available through Amazon). Monoprice’s antennas offered what we were looking for at a much lower price than most of the field.
After all that, we had 13 indoor antennas to test head-to-head in a variety of scenarios.
After all that, we had 13 indoor antennas to test head-to-head in a variety of scenarios. We tested in two locations using a quantitative measure (number of channels detected by auto-scan) and a qualitative one (rating the signal quality of all the major networks on a scale of 0-5 and adding up the scores). We also tested for interference by placing them in sub-optimal locations and walking around in an attempt to disrupt the signal. After we made our picks for the Manhattan/Brooklyn tests, we tested the top performer in the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago to make sure it worked there, too.
After all the scores were tallied up, we were hoping to come up with bulletproof, confident advice as to which antenna was clearly the best. One antenna that dominated the competition at each location that we could wholeheartedly recommend. We hoped to find a one-size-fits-all winner.
But that would have been too easy. Instead, we had vastly different results between the Manhattan and Brooklyn tests.
You’d think that amped antennas would do better in Brooklyn, where the broadcast towers were farther away? Not necessarily. You’d think that the antenna that did best in Brooklyn would also do well in Manhattan? Not even close. You’d think that the bigger, bulkier antennas would generally perform better than the small, unamped windowsill units? Nope.
It was hard to find a solid pattern, but there were a few antennas that did well in both locations. One in particular performed much better than any other antenna in the thick of the city, and a few of amped antennas turned in good results in both locations.
Our Main Pick for Urban Areas: HD Frequency Cable Cutter (unamped)
The HD Frequency Cable Cutter, which sells for $90 to $100, was the best-performing antenna in our Manhattan tests by a significant margin. It pulled in 55 channels during the scanning process—three more than the second place finisher. That’s not a huge difference, but more importantly, it hauled in the highest number of perfect-looking signals in Manhattan. CBS, NBC, Univision, and Fox looked immaculate. ABC, Telemundo, PBS, and The CW all got scores of “Excellent.”
Major Network Interference Scores for Manhattan
It was also the antenna that was the least prone to in-room interference in the Manhattan tests. In Manhattan, the Cable Cutter outperformed larger models such as the Antennas Direct ClearStream 2 and all the amped models.
This antenna is so interference-free that I tried to stretch its limits.
This antenna is so interference-free that I tried to stretch its limits. After the complete test results were in, I tucked it behind some picture frames to see how well it would perform when it was obscured. This wasn’t just for curiosity’s sake: It’s a cumbersome antenna, so placing it behind other, more pleasant-looking objects might be a normal use case. Even when obscured, the Cable Cutter pulled in more channels—with excellent signals—than all the other antennas in our Manhattan tests.
The Cable Cutter is rated for a range of 50 miles, but our Brooklyn tests would suggest that it doesn’t perform well closer to ground level. In fact, it didn’t do well at all in Brooklyn, and that’s just one reason why you may consider one of our alternate picks instead.
However, this antenna fared well in our Bay Area and Chicago tests. Our Bay Area test was the most challenging in terms of distance from the broadcast antenna: We were about 26 miles away, in a spot where traditional bunny-ear antennas never have any luck. In the Bay Area test, Wirecutter editor Michael Zhao picked up 80 channels on his best scan results, and he reported that the reception looked very good for the major networks except CBS, which didn’t show up at all. He noted that channels that were picked up looked excellent, but it was either great reception or unusable/nonexistent reception. Scanning multiple times produced better results to a point, but subsequent scans were hit or miss again, so if you get one you like, stick with it.
In Chicago, the results were less impressive but still good. Wirecutter editor-in-chief Jacqui Cheng lives about three miles away from the broadcast antenna, and she was able to pull in between 64 and 71 channels per scan. She reported good signal strength when the antenna was in an optimal location in the window, but there was some visible noise in the signal when the antenna was in our suboptimal behind-the-TV spot. Cheng noted that while the HD Frequency pulled in more channels per scan and generally performed well, it didn’t offer a huge advantage over her amplified RCA ANT1650F model for the major networks.
The HD Frequency Cable Cutter is bigger than most antennas in this roundup, measuring 19 inches by 20 inches. It’s not garish, but it might look awkward in your living room due to its sheer size and its honeycomb-like design. The shipping version comes with a 12-foot coaxial cable and an outdoor mounting bracket; neither of those came with our test unit, so we can’t comment on whether they perform well. It doesn’t come with a stand for indoor use. I was able to just prop it by the window and pull the blinds for minimal visual intrusiveness, but it could be awkward for many setups.
It also ranked close to the bottom of the pack in our Brooklyn tests, both in terms of the number of channels pulled in and the signal strength for each station. But it did well enough in the Manhattan (and other location) tests, outscoring all contenders by a wide margin, that it should be on your short list if you’re within a few miles of a broadcast antenna.
Despite all the things we like about the Cable Cutter, we did find some things that gave us pause. In our follow-up research for the HD Frequency (after testing), we found a Craigslist posting that offered cash and free antennas for posting reviews of the Cable Cutter and Cable Cutter Mini. (The listing has since expired, but we were able to view the text before expiration.)
That’s a frustrating find, given how well the antenna performed in our independent tests. We asked HD Frequency founder Josh McDonnell about the Craigslist post, and he pointed out that the company never solicited for positive reviews—just reviews. “We were looking for an independent reviewer in NYC who would objectively test and post their candid feedback online before the Christmas holiday season online sales push,” McDonnell told Wirecutter. “In any case, this ad went with no takers and we were not able to find anyone in time for the holiday sales rush to do an objective review and post online.”
Take from that explanation what you will—in the interest of transparency, we felt it was wise to inform our readers of both sides of this conversation. That said, we were not offered money to include the Cable Cutter in our guide, and the antenna performed well enough on its own to warrant becoming our top pick.
A Budget Pick that Did Well in Both Locations: Monoprice 7969 (amped)
For around $20, the Monoprice 7976 Indoor/Outdoor Antenna With Low-Noise Amplifier gave us very good results in both locations. It did well enough for so little money that it was in the running for our top pick overall. However, it’s hard to balance on its bendy stand and the Cable Cutter’s superior performance in Manhattan was hard to ignore.
Major Network Signal Quality for All Antennas in Manhattan
In fact, if you add up the major network reception scores between Manhattan and Brooklyn, this Monoprice antenna finished ahead of all the others. So why isn’t it the top pick? Because it rarely pulled in a perfect picture, although it did pull in an excellent picture for most major networks. It’s a steady performer, and it was one of the least prone to interference in our tests. It finished in second place in in Manhattan, putting up an overall picture quality score of 33 versus the Cable Cutter’s 41. That’s quite a bit behind the Cable Cutter, but ahead of bigger and pricier models such as the Antennas Direct ClearStream. It was neck-and-neck with the Winegard Flatwave FL-5000 for the best overall performance in Brooklyn.
It looks more like a traditional antenna than anything else in this roundup. It’s an amped, wiry, bow-tie-looking piece of hardware that needs to stay plugged in for the best performance. There’s a 10-foot coaxial cable included in the box, which is a nice perk for the price.
The 7976 has a weird bendy stand that makes it possible to stand it up indoors, but it’s precarious.
The 7976 has a weird bendy stand that makes it possible to stand it up indoors, but it’s precarious. Wall-mounting it would be your best bet, and it seems to be built with that in mind. Unlike the amped Mohu models, it doesn’t work very well without its amp and doesn’t look as nice. It’s also a bi-directional antenna, which means it may be extremely finicky if you don’t line it up just right.
There are a lot of caveats with this one, but the price-to-performance ratio could make you really happy. If you find a sweet spot in your apartment and leave it there, it may perform better than antennas more than three times its price.
A Strong Pick with Great Aesthetics: Mohu Curve 50 (can be used amped or unamped)
The main problem with a lot of these antennas is that they’re ugly, or at least look like they should be mounted on a military vehicle. Setting up a big, cagey unit like the Antennas Direct ClearStream might be fine if you aren’t concerned with your apartment’s aesthetics, but it basically looks like a space-lobster trap. Many people would not want that visible in their window or their living room.
Major Network Signal Quality of All Antennas in Brooklyn
The good news is that there’s a growing number of elegant and unobtrusive antennas, and a few of them did well in our tests. Most of them look like sheets of paper with a coaxial cable coming out of them. You can either hang them in a small corner of your window, tack them up on a wall, or put them on your windowsill. You’ll hardly notice them.
But there was one antenna that actually looked good when it was in plain view.
But there was one antenna that actually looked good when it was in plain view. The one that really nailed the whole aesthetics/performance combination is the Mohu Curve 50, an amped antenna that looks like a little sail or a curved, blank picture frame.
The Curve 50 performs just like the Mohu Leaf Ultimate, which has the same specs but looks more like a flat piece of paper. The Curve 50 costs $90, while the Leaf Ultimate goes for less than $70. That extra $20 goes toward a little detachable stand for the Curve; you can either prop the antenna up or lay it flat on its back.
Both of these Mohu models are rated for a 50-mile range with their amps plugged in, and both of them come with 16-foot coaxial cables included. The amped Mohu antennas pulled in 50 channels each in the Manhattan tests and placed in the top five in both Manhattan and Brooklyn for overall reception quality.
They pulled in more perfect-looking signals than most antennas in our Manhattan tests, with the exception of the Cable Cutter. But they’re a lot more touchy if you stand next to them: They finished near the middle of the pack in terms of interference overall.
There is another key benefit to both of these antennas. Thanks to their ability to operate with and without the plug-in amps, they’re versatile. If you can use them without the amp, great: It’s one less thing to plug in and contribute to a rat’s nest of wires behind your set. But if you move farther away from a broadcast tower and need the amp in the future, you’ll have that option.
There are unamped versions of each antenna with ranges of 30 miles: The Mohu Curve 30 and the Mohu Leaf. Those cost $50 and $40, respectively, but should probably be avoided because they performed near the middle of the pack in both Manhattan and Brooklyn while the Monoprice is cheaper and performed better.
How We Tested
We ran a total of three tests in each of our two test locations in New York City. For the first two tests, we placed the antenna in the window (the ideal place for it) and tested for signal quality from the couch and while interfering with the antenna. For the third, we tested performance when the antenna was hidden behind the TV to simulate performance in less-than-ideal circumstances.
It’s important to note that we tested each antenna in clear conditions during the late summer and early fall.
It’s important to note that we tested each antenna in clear conditions during the late summer and early fall. We found that overall performance was significantly affected on stormy days, so we elected to score each antenna based on the best possible weather conditions in order to keep the results consistent.
To see how they’d perform in the thick of the city, we used an eighth floor apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, where the windows face north onto blocks of huge skyscrapers. The Empire State Building, which has a broadcast antenna for all of the major networks in New York City, is about a mile southeast. There’s no direct line of sight from the building, and there are sky-high obstructions all around.
To see how the antennas did farther from the broadcast towers among shorter buildings, where amplified antennas might be a better choice, we tested in John Mahoney’s Brooklyn (Clinton Hill) apartment, where the buildings aren’t as tall and the line of sight to the broadcast antenna might be better. But there are obstacles there too: The apartment is near ground level, and something as innocuous as an idling truck outside the window could affect reception. It’s about five miles from the Empire State Building as the crow flies.
For our first test, we set the antennas up in the best location in each apartment, in the window and pointed in the right direction. Then we ran one channel scan on the TV, followed by another. The second scan was necessary because it often brought up more options or eliminated unwatchable channels from the first scan.
We marked down how many channels were picked up on the best of the two auto-scans. Next, we went through each channel and marked down the signal strength and picture quality of each station. We gave each antenna two scores for each channel: one for signal quality when we were watching from the normal spot on the couch and another that rated how each antenna handled in-room interference. For the interference tests, we did three things. First, we walked around the room to see if the signal cut out or looked worse, then we stood right next to the antenna to see if that affected things. We then physically held the antenna to see if it had a negative impact on reception.
For normal couch viewing, each channel was given a performance score for each antenna.
For normal couch viewing, each channel was given a performance score for each antenna. A score of Perfect (five points) meant that there was nothing discernibly wrong with the picture—no signal drop-outs, no artifacts, no noise, just a smooth, sharp HD picture that looked like it was being played on Blu-ray. A score of Excellent (four points) meant that the reception was solid—completely watchable, but there may have been a bit of grainy softness in comparison to a perfect picture. A score of Good (three points) meant that the signal was still very watchable—more good than bad—but that there were some annoying visual and audio artifacts mixed in. A score of Good (two points) meant that the signal wavered between watchable and unwatchable. A score of Fair (one point) was more bad than good, with frequent artifacts or signal freezes that made the station a chore to watch. A score of Bad (0 points) meant that there was no signal or that the station was completely unwatchable.
We graded our motion-interference tests on the same scale under different criteria. If there was no interference after walking around, standing next to the antenna, and physically picking it up, the antenna got five points. If there was slight-but-watchable interference only while holding it, the antenna got four points. If the signal completely dropped out while holding the antenna, it got three points. If the signal dropped out while standing near the antenna, it got two points. And if there was visible interference when we were just moving around the room, the antenna got one point.
Our last test involved running a signal-quality test with the antenna tucked behind the TV in an attempt to recreate a situation where optimal antenna placement might not be possible. For this one, we went through each channel and used the same Perfect/Excellent/Good/Fair/Bad scoring scale from our optimal placement tests.
We gathered a lot of data in this test, but we only used some of it for the overall scores. When we tallied the scores for each antenna, we only used the reception-quality scores for eight networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, The CW, PBS, Univision, and Telemundo. The reasoning there is that they’re the channels most people would watch using an antenna.
And finally, after we crunched the numbers from our Manhattan and Brooklyn tests, we tested the top-performing antenna again in the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago. This was less of a deep-dive test and more of a reality check: We wanted to see if the performance was still good in an entirely different part of the country.
Hey, those tests are flawed/unscientific and I would have done this instead…
That’s a fair point. We weren’t able to do the exact same setups in multiple cities, which would have taken out some of the variables between locations.
But even if we had done that, there would still be variables with your setups we can’t account for, from the tuner in your specific TV to the location and direction of your house/apartment, how far you are from the broadcast towers, or whether there are any tall buildings in the way. This is the main reason why antennas are so difficult to test.
We were going for real-world tests in real-world locations across multiple TVs and gauging how well each antenna performed under specified conditions and tests. In New York City, our tests were especially challenging. There were a lot of tall buildings around, and we didn’t have a direct line of sight to the broadcast antenna—think of it as a “worst case scenario” at close range. We didn’t use any equipment to measure signal strength. We wanted to use our own eyeballs, like most people do. This is how all these antennas performed in near-identical situations. We don’t expect the results to match what you’ll get in your own apartment.
In order of performance, here are the other antennas we ran through the wringer.
In order of performance, here are the other antennas we ran through the wringer. Some performed really well in Brooklyn but not in Manhattan. Some performed well in Manhattan but not in Brooklyn. None of them came close to the way the Cable Cutter performed in the city, but almost all of them trumped its performance in Brooklyn.
Winegard FL-4000 Flatwave Mini ($23): In a way, this antenna is a poster child for how counterintuitive our tests turned out. First of all, this thing is small; smaller than an 8.5 inch by 11 inch piece of paper with a coaxial cable attached to it. It costs less than $25. It’s the third-tier and cheapest antenna of the three Winegard models we tested, and it had a better aggregate picture quality score than both of the other higher-end models. But it does have clear weaknesses, too: Its range is only 15 miles, it doesn’t pick up a huge amount of channels, and it’s prone to interference. If you live in the thick of a city and want a cheap way to watch the major networks, it’s worth considering, but the Monoprice is a better bet if you’re willing to deal with a less-discreet design.
Winegard FL-5000 Flatwave ($38): This unamped, flat antenna has a listed range of 25 miles and did very well in Brooklyn. It’s flimsier and thinner than the similar-looking Mohu models, and its 15-inch coaxial cable is hard-wired into the unit, which makes it difficult to place in an ideal location without getting a cable extension. It’s worth considering for its sub-$40 price, but the results weren’t consistent enough to recommend it fully. It’s highly rated on CNET and in Amazon reviews. But it finished close to the bottom of the pack in Manhattan and it was prone to interference in that location.
Winegard FL-5500A Flatwave ($60): This is the amped version of the FL-5000, doubling its range to 50 miles. It pulled in more channels than most antennas, and it was less prone to interference. But it didn’t stand out in terms of reception quality. The amp is hard-wired into its 18.5-foot-long coaxial cable—the cable is nice and long, giving you a lot of freedom in terms of positioning it far from the TV, but the supplied USB-to-outlet plug for the amp module is frustratingly short.
Mohu Leaf ($40): This is another “mud-flap” unamped antenna with a listed range of 35 miles. It performs similarly to the Winegard FL-5000: It did a bit better than the Winegard in Manhattan, but not nearly as well in Brooklyn. Its included cable is on the shorter side at six feet, but it’s detachable from the unit, which makes it easy to swap in a longer one. It was a middle-of-the-pack performer overall.
Solid Signal HD-Blade ($29): Yet another flat, low-profile antenna cut from the same mold as the Mohu Leaf and the Winegard Flatwave antennas. We only tested this one in Manhattan, as it came in after our big Manhattan and Brooklyn tests. It performed about the same as the Mohu Leaf—a little worse in the number of UHF-band channels found and in-room interference tests—but our test unit didn’t come with a cable. There are bundles available on Amazon that let you specify a cable length for around the same $30 price, so if you go for this one, get the package with the included coaxial cable.
Monoprice HDA-3700 ($15): This plasticky amped antenna feels (and is) cheap, but it’s not prone to interference. It didn’t pull in many stations for an amped antenna, and it never achieved a perfect picture in our tests. It looks like a router. It comes with a 10-foot coaxial cable. It’s okay but unexciting, like a peanut butter sandwich.
HD Frequency Cable Cutter Mini ($45): This unamped antenna looks like the skeleton of a small picture frame, and it’s rated for a 25-mile range. It did okay in Manhattan and Brooklyn and comes with a 12-foot-long coaxial cable. According to our tests, it’s a bit overpriced for the performance it gave us.
Antennas Direct ClearStream 2 ($64): The old Wirecutter pick for best antenna didn’t do very well, and that may have to do with the fact that it’s a directional antenna. It may perform much better for you if you have a direct line of sight to the broadcast antenna. It’s unamped, it pulls in a lot of channels, and it’s almost immune to interference, which are all good things. But it finished close to the bottom of the pack in reception quality for both locations, which means its size, price, garish looks, and annoying assembly process weren’t worth it. This is an outdoor antenna marketed as an indoor/outdoor antenna.
Terk FDTV2 ($30): No way. This one finished in dead last by a long shot for both locations. Plus its built-in cable is only six feet long, which is way too short for a hardwired cable.
What Makes a Good Indoor HD Antenna
Ideally, you want an antenna that you can stick in a window and forget about.
Ideally, you want an antenna that you can stick in a window and forget about. It should pick up all the channels you need and offer a great picture for the most important ones. It shouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb in your place, and it shouldn’t cost a fortune. Here are the things to consider when it comes to buying one.
VHF and UHF: Most of the channels you’ll probably want to watch are on the UHF band. In New York, CBS, NBC, and Fox are all UHF stations. A UHF antenna is also important if you’re more interested in local broadcasts and foreign language stations, such as Univision, Telemundo, ICN (China), SAB TV (India), and others
However, a few stations are still broadcast on VHF: ABC, PBS, and The CW in New York, for example. All of the antennas in this roundup picked up both VHF and UHF channels in our tests, although some of them are marketed as UHF-only antennas and only found ABC after several scans. A UHF antenna can pick up VHF channels if it’s close enough to the broadcast antenna (usually within a few miles). The farther you live from a broadcast tower, the more likely you’ll only pick up the UHF band with most indoor antennas.
Amped vs. unamped: The main thing to decide is whether you need an amped or unamped antenna. We tested both in this roundup. Amped models are made for people who live farther away from broadcast towers and you need to plug them in for best results. They extend the range of the antenna, usually to about 50 miles for most indoor models. Unamped models usually have a range of 15-30 miles, depending on their size; the bigger they are, the longer the range. A couple of larger unamped antennas in our tests—the HD Frequency Cable Cutter and Antennas Direct ClearStream 2—have listed ranges of 50 miles or more.
The amped/unamped choice is the easiest decision to make, because there’s a free and easy way to figure it out. Go to Antennaweb.org and plug in your zip code and elevation information. It will bring up antenna advice that’s tailor-made for your location based on standards developed by the Consumer Electronics Association and National Association of Broadcasters. Their ratings only refer to outdoor antennas; indoor models aren’t part of the rating system. Still, they’ll give you a good gauge of what you’ll need to buy.
Another one we like to use is TV Fool. Their color-coded system corresponds to the kind of antenna you need for each channel available in your area. Yellow means you’re probably close enough to use a small to medium-sized unamped antenna. Green means you need a larger unamped or a small antenna with an amp. Light green means you should probably consider amped models only. Beyond that, in the red, blue, violet, and pink zones, you should only consider a larger amped antenna or an outdoor antenna.
Using an amped antenna at close range: You might be thinking that an amped antenna is a safe pick for any situation. After all, if it can pick up a signal from really far away, shouldn’t it work the best from close range? In our tests, not necessarily. The best-performing antennas in Manhattan and Brooklyn were both unamped models.
In Manhattan, our test location might have been close enough to introduce signal overload, which is well-explained on this HDTV Primer site. This would explain why unamped antennas performed much better in some cases.
There were some benefits to using an amped antenna in the middle of a city. The best amped antennas in our tests weren’t as sensitive to in-room interference as the other models in the roundup. If they pulled in a good signal, it stayed that way no matter how much we tried to interfere. If you can’t put your antenna in the window, you should consider an amped model.
Directional vs. multi-directional: Most of the antennas we tested in this roundup were multidirectional models. Neither of our testing areas offered direct line of sight to the nearest broadcast tower, so the multidirectional antennas were best for our test environments—and are probably the best fit for most city-dwellers. You don’t need to point a multidirectional antenna in a particular direction to receive a solid signal, so they’re the most forgiving antennas in terms of placement. However, they almost always work best if you place them in a window or as close to the broadcast tower’s line of sight as possible. They are wider, flatter, and sometimes larger than indoor directional antennas, and they are generally less finicky. You can get better performance from a directional antenna, but only if it’s pointed in the perfect direction.
Gain: An antenna’s gain spec is a measurement (in decibels) of how well an antenna can convert weaker signals into a usable signal for your TV’s tuner. Gain is generally more important if you’re using a directional antenna or if you’re farther away from a broadcast tower. If you’re in a city, you probably don’t need a high-gain antenna. For many of the antennas in our test bed, there wasn’t even a “gain” spec listing. Plus, as is explained in our previous HDTV antenna piece, the way manufacturers measure gain is inconsistent, so it’s hard to get much use out of the spec.
Extras in the box: Sometimes you just get an antenna in the box and it’s up to you to come up with a coaxial cable and a way to prop the thing up. If you want an antenna that’s fully ready to go right out of the box, check for the extras: a nice long coaxial cable so that you can experiment with different antenna locations, a stand so that it can support itself, and hardware add-ons for mounting the antenna. Sometimes the cheapest antennas have the best extras (Monoprice in particular) while more-expensive models come with short or wired-in cables.
About that coaxial cable: It should be detachable at both ends. Some antennas have cables that are hard-wired into the unit. In some cases, the cable is long enough for the hardwiring not to be a big deal (the Winegard models), but a short hardwired cable is a dealbreaker (Terk FDTV2).
Physical design: Keep in mind that this thing is going to be sitting in your living room, on your windowsill, and likely visible through your window. If you care about the way it looks, your options are fairly limited. The “mud-flap” style antennas such as the Mohu Leaf antennas, the Winegard models tested in this roundup, and the Solid Signal HD-Blade are fairly inoffensive. They’re lightweight enough to tape them to a window. The Mohu Curve actually looks good. Of the chunkier, looks-like-an-antenna antennas, only the HD Frequency Cable Cutter offered performance strong enough in our tests to outweigh its aesthetic shortcomings.
Wrapping It Up
The results of our tests were chaotic, but there were some clear standout performers. The HD Frequency Cable Cutter smoked the competition in Manhattan, and it also pulled in a large number of channels with stable and excellent-looking signals in other cities. But it’s $90, it’s a big hunk of flat metal, and it’s unamped. If you want alternatives, the Mohu Curve 50 will look better in your home without sacrificing much performance, and the Monoprice 7976 is a standout low-priced model.