Free (and amazingly good) TV by antenna

TV antennas are old technology, but the free over-the-air signals they provide have two big advantages:

  • First, they’re free! Once you install the antenna and get it working, there are no monthly fees.
  • Second, they’re good! Cable and satellite operators do a lot of signal processing, compared with the native over-the-air signals. Videophiles can see a quality difference.

A TV antenna can be a useful part of your cut-the-cable strategy.To get a quick start on this, go to TVfool.com and type in your address. You’ll get back a detailed report on what stations you can receive free over-the-air.Or, for more detail, look at these questions and answers:

What kind of antenna will I need to get good signals at my house?

Go to TVfool.com to find out. There you’ll enter your address, and you’ll find what to buy. Or, if you’re not technically inclined, you can get a simpler report at antennaweb. People in large cities can often get excellent reception. In more remote areas, you’ll need a better antenna. Important note: Both of the sites mentioned here are highly pessimistic — meaning you can often get a lot more stations than their results list.

Do I have to mount the antenna outside?

For the best results in most locations, yes. If you’re lucky, you may be able to get good signals with “rabbit ears” indoors. If the signal isn’t acceptable, a larger, attic-mounted antenna may do the trick. But to minimize the hassle, it may be best to go straight to an outdoor mounting of the kind of antenna recommended at TVfool.com or antennaweb.

What kinds of antennas have been frequently recommended by users?

Channel Master, Winegard and AntennasDirect get good reviews among contributors to AVS Forum. But how about gimmicky antennas that have unusual shapes or claim unusually good results indoors? They consistently disappoint actual users.

Where can I buy an antenna?

Your local Radio Shack is a good starting point, and a Radio Shack antenna may be all you need. But if you have more challenging reception conditions, you’ll need to see an independent electronics dealer that handles brands such as those mentioned above. If you prefer shopping on the Web, try http://starkelectronic.com/ (a highly informational website), http://solidsignal.com or http://warrenelectronics.com.

Can my homeowners’ association keep me from mounting an antenna outside?

The general answer is “no.” Under Congressional authority of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC has adopted a rule that allows most viewers use an outdoor antenna. Even if you’re renting, you can probably mount an antenna on an area you exclusively control, such as a patio or balcony. But there are exceptions, including provisions for safety and for preservation of historic areas. Here’s more information.

What’s the most important thing to remember in installing an antenna?

Don’t get yourself killed.

Seriously, there are two hazards you might underestimate

  • the risk of falling. If you don’t regularly work on a ladder, you won’t know how easy it is for something to go wrong when you’re up high.
  • the risk of electrocution. TV antennas often require long masts. You don’t have to be that close to an electric line for a misstep to make that mast fall across the line, and then you’re fried (maybe).

So be careful or get a professional installer.

Bottom line, what are the best antennas out there?

In my experience and reading, here they are (I own earlier versions of most of these antennas, and they’re all currently hooked up and performing well, aimed in different directions):

As a good first antenna to just “give it a try”: the ChannelMaster 4221 with no pre-amplifier. If you have a long cable run or you’re a long way from the stations, add a ChannelMaster 7777 pre-amp.

As a good simple antenna, easy to install, that gets the whole range of close-in stations: The Winegard Sensar. You can get it with a built-in amplifier, saving you the hassle of finding that separately.

If you’re way out and need the most signal strength possible: Get a ChannelMaster 4228 or AntennasDirect XG91. Team either antenna with a ChannelMaster 7777 pre-amp.

I own a ChannelMaster 4221 (pointed toward a single hard-to-get signal), a Winegard Sensar (pointed toward some close-in stations) and a predecessor of the ChannelMaster 4228 (pointed toward stations over 90 miles distant). I had to read up on joiners and combiners to make the three signals behave on a single cable.

Where can I find out more?

The antenna experts who post at AVS Forum are great. If you’re having a problem, post your setup there — preferably including your TVFool results — and you will mostly likely get a quick answer. Or, ask solidsignal.com for antenna help using their fill-in form. They’re good! Or, if you’re not looking for specific help but just want to find out more, check out the tutorial at dtvmag.com.


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