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So you’ve cut the cord, and you love your Roku, but you still want to watch “The Bachelor”, “Masterpiece Theatre”, and the Super Bowl in real time, on your big screen TV, in crystal clear 1080p. What do you do?
Well, you turn to technology that’s been around for decades, and pick up your own antenna. You’ll have access to major networks like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, PBS, and the like, alongside local stations, with comparable, if not superior picture quality to cable, and no regular fees.
The trouble with TV antennas
Which antenna you should buy, however, is a much more complicated question – especially if you’re looking at one of the many indoor, “set-top” antennas that are most common at retailers. Frankly, it’s one that can’t be answered with any succinctness, the way you might say “just buy an iPad” or “check out the XPS 13.”
That’s because the Earth and society exist. No one antenna will acquire every broadcast signal with perfect clarity for everyone on its own. At least, no affordable one you’d find in stores will.
Instead, it’s largely dependent on your location – if you have lots of hills, buildings in the way of your nearest towers, those’ll naturally interfere with the signal. The direction each broadcast tower is pointing plays a role, too, as does the weather, where the antenna is situated in your TV room (higher is always better), how your home is constructed, and a range of smaller factors you probably can’t account for.
Who this is for
Because of all this, my search to find a serviceable indoor antenna was highly subjective. I used each one on the eastern edge of New Jersey, around 10 miles from the nearest broadcast towers in Manhattan. So, not that far. I set everything up as high as I could in a window facing the most significant cluster of signals. That didn’t make them super elevated, but, as best I could tell, my path wasn’t especially obstructed.
Thus, this guide can only be directed toward a narrow niche of people. Generally speaking, it’s for those in urban, suburban, and/or mostly well-populated areas, who live relatively close to signal sources. That kind of environment is usually the most passable for indoor antennas, which I chose to focus on because, again, they’re the ones these users are most likely to come across when shopping. They’re also the ones most likely to have user feedback relative to their region, which isn’t insignificant during that process.
Aside from that, I’m presuming you want an antenna that’s easy to install and move around, and that you’d rather tape a lighter thing to a wall or window than mount a bulkier thing to a roof or attic. I focused on passive devices, too – stronger, amplified antennas can be helpful picking up more distant signals, but they aren’t always necessary for this use case, and they often aren’t the cure-all they’re advertised to be.
I also put some weight into aesthetics; if you’re really close to your towers, an old-school loop and rabbit ears could do the job, but it’ll be a little unsightly. Finally, I’m guessing you don’t want to break the bank, so I stuck to mostly affordable models.
More things to know
There are a few more miscellaneous notes to keep in mind before we jump into the picks. Let’s run through them quickly.
- The number one thing you should do before buying an antenna is check out resources like TVFool and AntennaWeb. Neither are perfect, but they’ll give you mostly accurate representations of what the signal strength situation is like in your area, and they’ll help you see which channels you should expect to pull in reliably with a set-top antenna like the ones here.
- Almost by nature, very few indoor-only antennas are capital-g Good. Compared to a heavier duty option that might go on a roof, they’ll attract less channels and suffer more broken signals. For instance, AntennaWeb claims 71 channels are available in my region. But even in that not-too-stressful environment, the most I got was 67 (with the Mohu Leaf 30). The majority settled in the mid-to-high 50s or low 60s. As we’ll see, my picks didn’t cause much harm with casual use, but that’s not to say you can’t do better. The idea here is to get enough, in a more convenient package.
- It’s worth learning which networks near you broadcast in the UHF and VHF bands. The sites above can help you see the divide. Without getting too deep into the physics involved, most indoor antennas do much better with UHF, which most of the popular networks use. All of the models below were still able to pick VHF networks near me (like ABC, PBS, or the CW) without much issue, but it’s no coincidence that, on the few occasions I did experience breakup, those were usually the ones to have trouble. While most of the users this guide addresses should be fine, it’s something to be aware of.
- Don’t put much stock an antenna’s advertised mile range – they’re best seen as broad generalizations that are quickly rendered obsolete by the many disruptive elements mentioned above. TVFool founder Andy Lee says: “There are no standards for how [manufacturers] specify the mileage rating, so usually if they have one, it’s just kind of a shot in the dark. It’s pretty random and doesn’t mean anything.”
Keeping all those disclaimers in mind, here are a few indoor antennas worth looking into:
The Mohu Leaf is easily the most popular indoor antenna on the market, and while it’s far from perfect, it does enough to merit that fanfare for the kind of user being addressed here.
Again, it’s all relative, but the Leaf 30 was the strongest performer in my testing. As noted above, it pulled in the most channels, with the major networks all coming in at a crisp and smooth 1080p, the lesser networks being perfectly usable, and virtually no instances of stuttering. The only hang-ups were two quick instances of FOX taking an extra moment to load.
While some user reviews say otherwise, and while the nature of these things suggest it might have trouble picking up VHF band signals, the Leaf was just about ideal for me. That goes extra given that it’s $20 cheaper than the Eclipse model it most readily compares to.
The Leaf popularized the flat paper look you’ll find on many indoor antennas. For the most part, it’s aged well. Like the Eclipse, it’s omnidirectional, meaning you have less of a chance of needing to angle it toward a specific spot. (Though there’s a good chance you’ll still have to, and you’ll likely have a harder time picking up especially distant signals.) It’s not ugly, it doesn’t feel as cheap as some of its knockoffs, and it’s certainly not bulky. Its white half gives it a better chance of blending in with your wall, too.
It’s about par for the course in terms of setup, though – if you don’t want to rest it somewhere, you can use tape or put an included set of pins in its little cutouts to keep it stuck against the wall. Moving it around isn’t complicated, but it’s more of a process than the Eclipse as a result. I’m a little iffier on the included coax cable, too: It’s sturdy and detachable, but weightier and slightly shorter than the other options here.
One small detail I did appreciate about the Leaf, and all Mohu products in general, was its tidy packaging. Everything in the box is laid out clearly, and includes a simple directions pamphlet and a customer support number if you’re having trouble. You shouldn’t run into too many issues, though.
The Winegard Flatwave wins no points for originality, but as far as the Leaf-inspired alternatives go, it’s respectable. It didn’t pick up as many channels as the Mohu or Eclipse, and it suffered from pixelation a couple more times, but all in all it was more than solid.
You might want the Flatwave over the Leaf for a couple of reasons. First, while it lacks any cutouts for pins, its 15-foot coax cable is thinner and longer, which may make it less annoying to place around the living room. (It’s not removable, however.) Two, it’s a little cheaper. If you ever see it on sale, and you’re in sync enough with your towers, you should be fine saving some cash.
On the other end, the Mohu Curve is an appealing option for those with money to burn. It’s overpriced, but if you’re short on discreet spaces, it may also be the only antenna you’d enjoy showcasing around the house. It’s got a pleasing sense of heft to it, it’s easy to mount on its included stand, and its slight contours come off as well-crafted. It’s more “minimalist” than “basic.”
That said, the lack of flexibility here means the Curve isn’t as simple to pop in a window as its thinner rivals. That likely lead to it performing slightly worse than the Leaf or Eclipse; again, it was largely dependable, but it pulled in a handful less channels, and at times I noticed some breakup with a major network like NBC (which used the more favorable UHF band). If there’s more in between your signals, it’s worth noting.
Nevertheless, while the idea of a “luxury indoor antenna” is goofy, the Curve could be worth the premium if aesthetics genuinely matter.