Cable and satellite TV subscriptions are becoming ever more expensive, so more and more homes are ditching pay TV in favor of free, over-the-air broadcasts. Digital TV typically provides between 20 and 60 channels depending on where you live, and can save you at least $1,000 a year, based on a typical pay TV subscription.
Folks who do are often surprised by the higher image quality they get from broadcast TV. That’s because cable and satellite services compress the video signal in order to reduce the bandwidth required to stream it to your home, all so they can cram in more of the channels you probably never watch anyway.
So, cut that cable, ditch that dish, and join the growing number of American households that are free from monthly bills for TV service.
Putting up an antenna is easy, but before you buy one you’ll need to figure out what channels are available where you live, how strong the signals are likely to be, and what direction they’re coming from. See TechHive’s guide to choosing an antenna to figure all that out.
As a rule of thumb, indoor antennas are suitable for areas with strong or very strong signals, the attic/outdoor antennas work in areas of medium signal strength, and the larger outdoor antennas in areas of weak signals.
Once you’ve determined your needs, this article will help with your antenna purchase. But before we jump into our results, check out this video that explains how to determine which free over-the-air TV channels you can receive where you live.
Best budget indoor TV antenna
If you live close enough to the broadcast towers for the stations you want to watch, a less-expensive non-amplified antenna like the Channel Master Flatenna might be all you need to cut the cord. At the time of this review, we found that Channel Master itself was offering the best price on this antenna: Just $10 plus $7.50 for shipping.
Best amplified indoor TV antenna
This antenna impressed us with its ability to pull in more broadcast channels than the competition. Further, those it did receive were a little stronger than from our runner-up, which should make for happier TV viewing.
The word “smart” gets bandied about quite a lot these days, but it’s more than just hyperbole in the case of Channel Master’s Smartenna+ over-the-air TV antenna. This amplified antenna has a tiny tuner onboard that can virtually change its reception pattern to pull in the most stations possible. We like it a lot.
Best roof-mount TV Antenna
The Antennas Direct DB8e’s reception is just as impressive as its looks. This is a large, heavy antenna cleverly designed to receive weak signals with two antenna arrays, or in areas of better reception to point to towers in different directions.
The Antennas Direct 91XG is a classic antenna design that has worked well for years. This antenna is quite directional and good at rejecting interference from the sides while picking out weak signals from the noise. It narrowly missed out on the top spot and would also be an excellent choice for people dealing with long-distance reception.
Best attic/outdoor TV antenna
The Winegard Elite 7550 immediately impressed with its ability to pick up more broadcast channels than the competition at higher signal levels. It has a built-in amplifier and performed well on both VHF-High and UHF broadcast bands. Because of its size you’ll want this one in the attic or outside of your house.
The Clearstream 4 Max is a little larger than our top-ranked choice and wasn’t quite as good at pulling in stations but it’s still a solid antenna. Its unique double figure-eight design is sure to look distinctive and it can receive signals from different directions, which is useful if you live in an area with stations in multiple places.
How we tested
TechHive tests TV antennas in a location in the Washington, D.C. metro area. (Until 2020, we tested in the San Francisco Bay Area, so you might see references to that location in older reviews). The D.C. location receives strong signals from local TV stations, but presents several challenges: There are a large number of trees around to influence reception; some of the independent D.C. TV stations are weak and difficult to receive; and with a good antenna, distant reception of Baltimore market stations is possible.
Indoor antennas are tested indoors and outdoor antennas outdoors. Each time we test a new antenna, we retest our current top pick to ensure a fair benchmark.
We use a set-top box to scan for channels and record the number of RF channels received by each antenna and their strength. Each RF channel carries a number of digital stations, but the number is different per channel and can change, so digital stations received isn’t as useful a measurement. We scan several times and adjust the direction of the antenna on some rescans.
Our picks are the antennas that receive the largest number of stations with the highest signal level in both the UHF (channels 14 through 51) and VHF-High (channels 7 through 13) bands, which are the primary TV broadcast bands.
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Martyn Williams produces technology news and product reviews in text and video for PC World, Macworld, and TechHive from his home outside Washington D.C.. He previously worked for IDG News Service as a correspondent in San Francisco and Tokyo and has reported on technology news from across Asia and Europe.