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Indoor HDTV antennas get a warm—but hopefully not fuzzy—reception

How well they do depends on location and geography

Published: July 29, 2013 11:00 AM
Paying more doesn't mean you get more
Two of the top-performing antennas were among the cheapest we tested.

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With cable and satellite TV bills steadily climbing, it's no surprise that cord-cutting is the most-mentioned reason for connecting your TV to an antenna to get free over-the-air reception. But as many TV viewers are finding out, there's another compelling reason: You won't lose a popular channel if your local cable or satellite company is squabbling with the network over fees and threatening to black out local broadcasts.

That's exactly the case right now in Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York, where Time Warner and CBS are fighting over retransmission fees. If the two sides can't agree on a reasonable amount the cable company should pay to carry the programming, six local CBS stations will go dark for nearly 3 million customers, but not for those who can get CBS with a TV connected to an antenna.

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. All you need is a TV equipped with a digital TV tuner, something included in all TVs since 2007. Those with older analog TVs will need a digital converter box now that all TV signals are digital.

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 an indoor antenna is an easier—and sometimes the only—option.

Check 5 tips for getting the best reception with indoor antennas. And find the best television for your needs and budget with our TV buying guide and Ratings.

Indoor models range from the old rabbit-ear antennas you used to regularly see perched atop a TV set, to newer models that sport sleek, ultra-flat designs, allowing them to be attached to a window or hidden behind a TV screen. Some are flexible, and a few can even be painted to blend in with your decor. Others have small, rectangular bases that sit upright on a table or cabinet. Since the wood and/or metal within your home's walls might interfere with and degrade digital signals, we’ve found the best placement is usually near a window facing the direction of your local TV transmitters.

What model is best?

We recently had a dozen staffers test 10 popular indoor antennas ranging in price from $8 to $80. (The complete list of tested models, and their price, is included below.) All were designed to pull in VHF (channels 2-13) and UHF (channels 14-69) HDTV signals. All but four of the 12 testers spread across the New York metropolitan area were able to get at least some HDTV channels.

Reception depended on distance from a broadcast tower, the terrain, and the surroundings (nearby houses, buildings, trees, and so on). Some models are directional, so they need 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. “Amplified” antennas can boost signal strength, which can sometimes help pull in more distant stations. But our tests showed they aren’t always more effective than non-amplified models, and they can overload reception from closer stations.

Brand and model (listed alphabetically) Amplified Price (from Amazon)
Antennas Direct CSM1-XG Yes $60
MOHU Leaf No $37
MOHU Leaf Plus Amplified Yes $48
MOHU Leaf Ultimate Amplified Yes $80
RadioShack 15-254 Yes $35 (RadioShack)
RCA ANT111 No $8
RCA ANT1650 Amplified Yes $32
Terk FDTV1A Yes $49
Terk FDTV2 No $32
Winegard FL-5000 Flatwave No $40

In our tests, performance varied wildly—so much so that we couldn't really rank them in order of performance, as a model that did well for one tester couldn't pick up any TV signals for another. Eight testers were able to receive at least a few channels, and one (who lives in a brownstone building in Brooklyn, NY) was able to pull in nearly 50 stations with several antennas. But four users couldn't get anything due to various environmental conditions [edited 8-2-13]. That underscores how heavily reception depends on your location relative to a TV station, the strength of the broadcasts, and whether there are physical obstructions such as trees, mountains, or buildings between you and the tower.

We also found little correlation between price and performance. The antenna that was generally able to pull in the most stations for most of our testers, the RCA ANT 1650, cost $32. The next best model, the RadioShack 15-254, sells for $35. Both are amplified models and are among the least expensive antennas we tested.  

Since the number of channels you’ll receive will depend on your own location and environment, you may need to try several models before finding the best antenna for your needs. That's why we strongly recommend purchasing from a retailer with a no-hassle return policy and reasonable warranty.

But 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

To help make choosing the right model a bit easier, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) have created a color-coded labeling standard to classify each of the available outdoor antenna type.

Did you know?

If you do switch to OTA (over the air) broadcasts, you’ll have to do without some favorite cable channels, such as Bravo, CNN, or Nickelodeon, as well as premium networks such as HBO and Showtime. A happy compromise may be to keep cable service on a main family TV, but switch to OTA reception on other sets in the house, such as a bedroom TV you primarily use to watch the nightly news.


There are good reasons other than cord-cutting to consider over-the-air reception. For example, if you lose pay TV service during storms, or your cable company gets into a carriage dispute with a network and threatens to drop it, a TV connected to an antenna can continue to get reception. Also, if you record a lot of shows, you can use the TV’s tuner to watch a show while your DVR is tied up recording other programming.


—James Willcox

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