In the era of cord cutting, one old-school technology has made a surprising comeback. Over the past nine years, TV antenna use in the U.S. has grown from 20% in 2009 to 31% in 2019, the highest percentage since 2005. A TV antenna gives you access to the best in live TV, from the Super Bowl to the Oscars. According to one survey, ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC made up four of the five channels consumers want the most in a TV package, and a TV antenna gives you them all in HD, all for free.
However, finding the right TV antenna for your home requires a little more know-how than most purchases. In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to narrow down your search. Once you know what kind of antenna you need, we’ve put together a list of models we can confidently recommend.
Five Steps to the Perfect TV Antenna
The transition from cable or satellite user to TV antenna master always begins at the same spot: identifying what signals you want to (and can) receive at your location. Most people report having to try two or three antennas before finding the one that works best for them, especially if they’re using an indoor antenna. We talked to Will Ross, Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, to get some insight into finding the right antenna. He told us that it’s really important to go through the following five-step process, and emphasized the importance of assessing your landscape. Ross told us that topography (the lay of the land around you, including mountains, valleys, forests, and buildings) and the issues related to it are “critical in determining what TV channels a user can receive, and what type of antenna a user needs to receive them.”
Get Your Personalized TV Signal Analysis Report
The first thing you need to figure out is where your home is in relation to nearby broadcast towers. This will tell you what kind of reception you can expect to get, as well as what type of TV antenna you should buy. There are a few websites that can show you this information, but the gold standard is TV Fool. After inputting your address, you’ll receive a TV Signal Analysis Report that will show you which channels you can receive at your location, where the towers are relative to you, and the frequencies of your preferred channels.
Why TV Fool?
There are several websites that provide tower information, but we found that TV Fool provided the most accurate, customized results. TV Fool allows you to input your exact address, so your radar map is tailored to your actual location. Antennas Direct would only let us put in our zip code, or our city. It did show the towers in the area, but it left it to us to figure out how many miles away each tower is from our house. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did let us put in our exact address, but it didn’t show us visually where each tower was relative to our house. Instead, we had to click on each call sign to figure out the rough direction of each tower.
If this looks overwhelming, it’s because it is. We’ll walk you through it in more detail below, but this chart essentially shows that the channels in green can be picked up with an indoor antenna, the ones in yellow with an outdoor, and the red ones will be difficult to get with either.
What Are All Those Tiny Labels on the Chart?
- Callsign: These are the unique letters the FCC uses to identify broadcasters.
- Real: The actual frequency the broadcaster is using.
- Virtual: The number that shows up on your TV as the channel number. (This helps networks, like Channel Four News, maintain brand identity, even if they are unable to broadcast on the real channel 4.)
- Network: The network affiliation of each broadcaster, e.g. PBS, NBC, ABC.
- NM (db): The predicted Noise Margin (NM) for each channel at your location. Rated for how the signal sits “in the air,” so you’ll need to add or subtract any gains and losses introduced by your system.
- Pwr (dBm): The predicted power of each channel at your location. TV Fool provides this number so you can perform your own NM calculations, but they also use it to estimate the NM (db) of each channel for you.
- Path: The path the signal travels between the transmitter and your location.
- LOS: Line-of-sight. The signal is traveling directly from the tower to your antenna.
1Edge: Single edge diffraction. The signal from the tower is hitting one major obstacle (often a mountain) which diffracts the signal.
- 2Edge: Double edge diffraction. The signal hits (and is diffracted by) two major obstacles before reaching your antenna.
- Tropo: Tropospheric scatter. Instead of receiving a signal either directly from the tower, or by bouncing off of landmarks, your antenna is catching signal being reflected off the upper layers of the troposphere.
- Distance: The number of miles from your location to the broadcast tower.
- True: The direction of the broadcast tower relative to your home and true north.
- Magnetic: The direction of the broadcast tower relative to your home and magnetic north. If you’re using a compass to aim your antenna, you should use the magnetic north azimuth values.
2. Find Your Favorite Channels
Next, you’ll need to have a list of the channels you want to watch so you can figure out what frequencies your antenna needs to pick up. Depending on your home and the strength and direction of TV signals, you might have to make some difficult choices. A lot of factors have to go right for you to receive every channel you want to watch. Keeping tabs on which channels carry which shows or sports is a good way to prioritize them, just in case you have to choose some shows to watch on Hulu or elsewhere.
Once you have your list of favorite channels, compare it to the Network and/or Callsign columns. Where available, TV Fool tries to fill out which network is linked to a particular callsign.
A callsign is the unique series of letters the FCC uses to identify broadcasters. They vary from region to region and one network will have multiple different call signs, like PBS, which is KQED for San Francisco, and KCTS-DT for Seattle.
If you’re missing some channels, or if you’re curious, it’s easy to search “[Call sign] [City],” to determine what station is being broadcast under that callsign. This will also help you differentiate between three different stations all listed as “IND,” or determine which “PBS” station has the programming you like.
3. Do You Need an Indoor or Outdoor Antenna?
Whether you live in an apartment, or simply want to test out a TV antenna without climbing onto your roof, if you have good signal reception, you’ll be able to try out an indoor antenna. To determine whether you can use an indoor antenna, take a look at TV Fool’s column labeled “NM (db).” This column stands for “Noise Margin” and is measured in decibels. It tells you how much interference each channel will deal with as it travels from the broadcast tower to your home. The higher the number, the better the signal.
If the channels on your list have an NM value higher than 35 dB, you should be able to get a clear signal using an indoor antenna. These channels will be colored green. Yellow channels, or those with a value between 35 dB and 15 dB can still be picked up, but will probably require an outdoor antenna. Red channels, those under 15 dB, will be increasingly difficult to receive with any TV antenna.
Choosing an outdoor antenna is the easiest way to improve reception. But an outdoor antenna might not be the best fit for those of us in apartments, or who don’t want the hassle of installing external cables or grounding the antenna against lightning strikes. If you have great reception, it might not even pay to get an outdoor antenna, unless you prefer to not have an indoor antenna in your TV room for aesthetic reasons. But if you have a strong enough signal, an outdoor antenna is overkill in some situations.
More Yellow Than Green?
If you have channels listed in the green zone but pretty close to yellow (their NM (db) value is closer to 35 than it is to 70), locating your antenna in the attic of your house is an easy way to improve your reception quality with an indoor antenna.
4. Do You Need a Directional or Multi-Directional Antenna?
Will Ross explained that between directional and multi-directional antennas, there are “almost always tradeoffs.” The more targeted an antenna is, the better reception you’ll get, but you’ll likely get fewer channels. A directional antenna will pick up a narrower band of signals, a distance about 50 to 60 degrees wide, while a multi-directional antenna typically gets between 100 to 200 degrees in opposite directions (if you aim your antenna east, for example, you’ll also get signals from the west). An omnidirectional antenna will pick up signals from all 360 degrees, but at a cost. Getting more channels from a wider range of towers means that you might not get as good signal quality from any channels.
Look at the Real Channel numbers for your preferred channels and locate your nearby towers on TV Fool’s radar plot map.
Our sample radar plot showed the most channels in the southeast and southwest quadrants. But since the main broadcast towers are more than 60 degrees apart, you wouldn’t be able to get channels 29 and 36 using a directional antenna.
If most of the channels on your list are within a 50-60 degree area, a directional antenna will give you the best reception. If essential channels are more spaced out on your radar plot, we’d recommend starting with a multi-directional channel. You can try omni-directional antennas as a last resort, but be prepared for some poor signal quality.
What’s Wrong with Omnidirectional Antennas?
Unless you’re right on top of the signal, it’s hard to get good reception with an omnidirectional antenna. We do have some recommendations, but the majority of antennas we recommend are either directional or multidirectional.
5. Do You Need Very High Frequencies or Just Ultra High Frequencies?
Every channel is broadcast on either Very High Frequencies (VHF) or Ultra High Frequencies (UHF). Most channels used to be VHF, but in recent years many have made the switch to UHF to get through obstacles like trees and houses more easily. Whether you need a VHF or UHF antenna depends on which frequencies your desired channels are broadcast in.
TV Fool’s channel chart will show you which channels are broadcast in VHF and which are in UHF.
If you want channels in both frequencies, you have a couple options. Manufacturers do make antennas designed to pick up both, but these generally only pick up one type well. This is worth a shot — your home might be in a good spot for receiving both types — but if it doesn’t work, you’ll have to buy separate antennas for each frequency. You can then join these antennas using a UVSJ (a UHF VHF Signal Joiner), which generally run around $25.
There is such a thing as reception that’s “too good.”
In order to pick up TV signals, the Noise Margin for any particular signal needs to between 15 dB and 70 dB. Too low, and the signal is too weak to pick up. Too strong, and not even the best TV can interpret the signal. If you live in a strong signal area, but your TV only shows a black screen, you might need to try to make your setup less effective at receiving signals to add in interference. A few steps you can take to reduce TV signal reception:
- Make sure you aren’t using an amplified antenna, or an amplifier at all. These decrease the amount of interference to improve reception.
- If you’re using an outdoor antenna, switch to an indoor one. The signals will have to pass through walls, increasing interference.
- Use a multi- or omnidirectional antenna rather than a directional one. These antennas experience greater signal loss than directional antennas, hopefully bringing your signal into the range where you’ll have great reception.
Have poor reception? Take opposite steps of those detailed above, and you might be able to improve your reception enough to have great TV signals.
If your TV was built before 2007, you’ll probably need a digital converter box.
In 2009, the FCC required all networks to start broadcasting in digital. To prepare for this, the FCC required any television sold after March 1st, 2007 to have a digital tuner built-in. If your TV was built prior to 2007, there’s a good chance it won’t be able to receive TV signals on its own, even with the perfect TV antenna — you’ll need to purchase a digital converter box.
There are a few exceptions, as a couple companies improved their televisions ahead of the deadline. If your TV was built in 2006 or early 2007, you can check your TV instruction manual to find out if your TV is digital compatible — it will be described as “DTV,” “ATSC,” “HDTV,” or “Digital Receiver.” If you haven’t kept the manual, you can call the FCC directly at 1-888-CALLFCC to find out.
TV Antenna Pro Tips
Adjust your noise margin values for additional sources of interference
When you plug in your address to TV Fool, you’ll see some predicted Noise Margin values for each station. However, there are a lot of other factors that could impact your signal strength. Some of them are unavoidable (trees, houses, surrounding terrain), but many you can improve. Here are some other things to check if you’re not getting a great signal.
Coaxial Cable: We do need to connect our antenna to our TV, but this affects our reception both based on how long the coaxial cable is, and the frequency being received. Generally speaking, the longer your coaxial cable, and the higher the frequency, the more signal loss you will experience — your NM value will decrease. You can lose between 1.5 dB to 5.6 dB per 100 feet of cable.
TV Splitters: If you want to watch channels from multiple TVs, you’ll need to purchase a splitter to send signal from one source, your antenna, to multiple destinations. You will experience some NM loss for each splitter used, a decrease of about 3.5 dB. The more splitters you use, the worse your signal will be.
Walls: If you’re hoping to use an indoor TV antenna, we recommend putting it on or near the exterior wall closest to the tower. Doing this will still result in an average loss of 14 dB. The further away from that wall you put your antenna, the more loss you’ll get, typically about 34 dB.
Other Houses: If there are any houses standing between your home and the tower, you can expect an additional 20 dB from your base NM value.
Trees: Trees between you and the tower will subtract around 10 dBs from your base NM value.
Amplifiers: Active antennas have a built-in amplifier that can improve your signal quality, but you can also buy an amplifier separately. These can help reduce the amount of noise that builds up as the signal travels from your antenna to your TV, and through things like the coaxial cable, TV tuner, and splitters. That said, adding an amplifier onto your line will also increase the noise, so we recommend choosing a model that introduces less noise than it improves on. If your amplifier doesn’t say how much noise it adds, assume between 6 and 10 dB.
Make sure your you’re using a quality coax cable
Manufacturers will sometimes throw in a coaxial cable or an amplifier with your TV antenna purchase, but just because they’re free doesn’t mean they’re always good. If your antenna isn’t working as you’d hoped, before you return it (or buy another antenna), invest in a quality RG6 cable.
Calculating range means more than just miles.
The range advertised on each antenna is a good guideline to estimate how far away from a broadcasting tower it will work, but unfortunately is only a guideline. There are too many variables that affect whether an antenna will work in each particular situation, so manufacturers can’t speak authoritatively on how far the antenna can be from the tower and still work.
Dr. Joy told us that, “Distance alone doesn’t tell you the whole story, because it doesn’t talk about topography – what is between you and the transmitting antenna.” Physical objects like trees and buildings interfere with the signal and decrease the range, while having a clear line of sight to the broadcasting tower might mean that the actual range is much larger than the advertised range.
If you live within 25 miles of the tower, and your advertised 25-mile antenna isn’t working, you might have to upgrade to a longer-ranged antenna. However, since the longer the range, the more expensive the antenna, you might try the shorter ones first to save some cash.
Once you’ve narrowed down the type of TV antenna that will work best for your home, check out our review of the best TV antennas. We vetted 86 different models and analyzed over 60,000 reviews to find the ones that are most likely to work on the first try. We’ve also put together some resources to help supplement your TV antenna.