How to choose the best antenna for HD TV

Which HD antenna is best?

Choosing the best antenna for HD off-air broadcast reception is an important piece of the process in receiving all that free high quality HD content.  If you haven’t seen HD off air programming you’re in for a real treat.  A properly aligned antenna feeding a quality HD television produces some of the best pictures you will see!  Neither cable nor satellite can compare to the picture quality from Over The Air (OTA) signals.  Let’s get on with setting up your new OTA antenna.  We will talk about how to choose the right antenna, a little of the math behind what makes for the best antenna and cable setup, and how to align the antenna based on your location.  Easy business!

First off, stores like your local Radio Shack, Target and Walmart will probably carry multiple models of antenna, ranging from something small that sits on your television and looks cute, to a huge array that mounts on your chimney. Selection of the best antenna for your area should be based on a few simple points.

Here’s a list of basic things you need to know before going HD antenna shopping.
-What channels do you want to receive. Make a list of them.
-What is the distance from your TV to your proposed antenna mounting location. This may be self evident as we move further thru this excercise of choosing the best antenna for your particular location.
-A basic map of your viewing location (home) with some notable landmarks you can use for antenna alignment. A simple line drawing or printed map will do fine here.

Use the Color Code System

Once you have collected this basic information, you can go use a nifty tool that is the fruit of collaboration between The National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association. This “antenna calculator” if you will, considers your location, known geological information, height above sea level and broadcast tower location information to make recommendations on the type of antenna system you need.

To get started, navigate to AntennaWeb.org and enter your location information. First, you’ll see a list of broadcast stations in your given area. Confirm the stations you want to see listed before moving on. If so, good, if not, go back and figure out where we took a wrong turn. Second, you’ll see a map showing radians that are highlighted as you mouse over different HD broadcast stations on the list. Basically what’s being shown here is what type of antenna you need to buy, based on the color code of the station radian, and what direction you need to point the antenna to receive a given broadcast station.

Real life examples of antenna plots

This particular situation, example picture below, in Houston is fairly easy. All of our UHF (Off-Air HD Stations are typically UHF) stations are located within 10 degrees of each other, allowing us to select the constant recommended antenna, a medium sized directional configuration. Furthermore, the single antenna in this design can be oriented in a single direction to receive all of the channels in our design.  The important thing to see here is simply that all the target viewing stations can be received by alining your antenna South South West.

Map of Houston Television Broadcast Towers

Map of Houston Television Broadcast Towers

Here is another example, picture below, of a not so easy configuration. This broadcast tower set, located in Atlanta, includes towers in excess of 60 degrees apart, making single antenna solutions unlikely. Receiving each of the broadcast stations shown in this image would likely require 2 antenna, oriented such that each antenna was able to receive 2-3 of the stations. The cables could be combined using a common splitter/combiner in your attic, running a single cable down to your set top box for receiving. Situations requiring more than one antenna are significantly more involved, but not so complicated that they should be avoided by the average user. Just plan on a little more trial and error getting the perfect antenna alignment. The end result is worth it when you finally sit down in your living room and are able to pull in a dozen or more quality HD broadcast stations for free!

Atlanta Television Broadcast Tower map

Map of Broadcast towers in New York

Below is an image showing a rundown of the various antenna type and correlating color codes. This chart was developed as a buying/install guide for Digital HD antenna. This chart was developed by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)

Antenna selector legend

Antenna selector legend

What makes the right antenna right?

HD Antennas are made in a variety of sizes and shapes. The color coded system developed by CEA and NAB breaks antennas down into 7 sections, ranging from small multi-directional antenna to large directional antenna. Basically, What is important to remember is that you can’t change physics. Larger antenna have more gain (ability to collect the signal), and smaller antenna have less gain. There simply is no substitute for gain. Designs calling for large directional roof mount antenna require just that. Smaller antenna that bear marketing slogans like “Indoor HD High Gain Highest Signal Quality” are just small antenna, and will always be outperformed by a larger more appropriate antenna if that’s what your design called for. Size matters!

Once you’ve determined what type of antenna you need to purchase, by using the guide above, you’ll want to consider how the cable will be routed between the antenna and your HD Tuner.   Be conscious  of distance, and remember that the longer the cable run, the more signal loss you’ll have.  The more signal loss, the poorer the signal and the resulting picture on your TV screen.  Long cable runs are not your friend, keep the cable short!

How do these antenna add up?

The math here, if you’re interested, goes something like this. For every 100′ of average RG-6 coac cable used, you will see a signal loss of 1.5-2dB. Every connector used (1 for each end of the cable) will add a loss of about 2dB. So, assuming we start out with a 15dB gain antenna, minus 2dB for 100′ of cable, minus 4dB for two connectors, we are down to 11dB by the time our cable reaches the receiver inside the house. When this value get’s too low, you begin to loose the HD signal occasionally or all-together. Weather such as rain and snow also reduces signal received, so it’s important to have a strong enough signal that weather events don’t disrupt reception. Bottom line here is to use good quality connectors and keep the cable runs as short as possible.

Comments or Questions?

Take the time to plan your OTA installation  and you’ll reap the benefits of a well designed system with years of  quality of HD broadcast. OTA, also known as digital TV, is often better quality uncompressed modulation shaming what both satellite and cable networks offer, and the price is free!

Please let me know if you like this article or have any questions about the antenna selection or installation process in the comment section below. Good luck installing your high gain HD Broadcast Television antenna.

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About Victor

Victor cut the cord and canceled cable in 2008. He got tired of consistently poor customer service and even poorer programming options. Working experience in IPTV and antenna installation made the transition to off-air TV and streaming internet services a natural progression for his broadcast reception at home. Here at KickOutCable.com, Victor is right at home, continuing the effort to share the secrets of cord cutting that the cable companies don't want you to know.

10 Responses to “How to choose the best antenna for HD TV”

  1. Chris Williams August 7, 2012 at 8:44 AM #

    I don’t think the map above is Atlanta; it’s New York City.

    • Victor August 26, 2012 at 5:40 PM #

      Thanks Chris, fixed the caption.

  2. RJP September 7, 2012 at 11:09 AM #

    I would cut the cable right now if I could find a way to easily record shows, especially sporting events, without having to pay for a service like TiVo. Is there a good OTA DVR solution out there?
    Thanks.

    • Victor September 29, 2012 at 7:29 AM #

      Check out the Channel Master CM-7400.  It’s not without issues, but the electronic guide makes up for any short-fallings in my opinion.  Thank you for reading!

    • Wolfeman September 30, 2012 at 2:20 PM #

      Think Slingbox does the same thing as a DVR.  

  3. Wolfeman September 30, 2012 at 2:22 PM #

    Recently discovered that I can hook my TV to my Comcast/Xfinity internet cable and get local channels and a few other digital channels.  Might be worth a try before buying an antenna if you have internet service.  Also do to poor filtering I get TLC and WGN.  

    • vworley October 5, 2012 at 2:24 PM #

      This is a great point Wolfman!  They don’t always put those filters on…I asked one install tech about this, he said they stopped putting them on as your really only getting local content.  Exactly what some of us want…although I’ve had the best quality by far using an antenna, it’s certainly not as easy of a solution.  Thanks for the tip!

    • vworley October 16, 2012 at 7:19 AM #

      Wolfman, I’ve seen this in Memphis as well.  Some of the cable companies are still sending clear QAM signaling down the line as you have seen.  Definitely worth hooking up a DVR to that cable and recording some goodness for time shift viewing!

  4. SteveTapp March 19, 2013 at 1:42 PM #

    You need some instructions on how to orient antennas. Here’s a link for rabbit ears. I didn’t keep one for UHF loop but I think it’s perpendicular to a line to the broadcast antennas. Some discussion on those switches found on many models would be good as well.

    • Victor August 4, 2014 at 6:51 PM #

      Steve, will get on that. Thank you!

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