How to Choose the Best TV Antenna for Your Needs

How to Choose the Best TV Antenna for Your Needs

We’re big proponents of antennas here at Cordcutting.com. Antennas are an essential tool for cord cutters, because they enable many viewers to get free television – including HD feeds – over the air. Depending on where you live, you could get all four of the major television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) free over the air, plus local networks like your city’s PBS channel. But how do you know which antenna is the best TV antenna for your region?

The fact is that cord cutters could end up needing very different types of antennas depending on where they live. City slickers may find that indoor rabbit ears will suffice, while viewers out in the country will need some serious hardware to pick up their nearest channels.

Best TV antenna: Rabbit Ears

“Rabbit ears” – a.k.a. an omnidirectional indoor antenna

But there’s hope for just about everyone, as long as you’re willing to do the research to determine the best TV antenna for your needs. This post will help you decide which antenna is right for you based on how near your local broadcasters are and what direction they’re coming from. We’ll start by locating those local broadcasters, and then we’ll pair up the findings with the right category of antenna. Finally, we’ll give a few examples of good antennas from each category and price point. These are among the best TV antennas on the market – though there are plenty of other good options, which you can check out once you know what to look for. Let’s get started!

 

Find Your Local Broadcasts

With an antenna, of course, you’re getting local broadcasts instead of national ones. That means local affiliates of big-time channels like CBS and ABC – you know, the ones that employ your local news anchors and put billboards up on the freeways. Channels that offer identical programming nationwide (like AMC) won’t be free over the air, but channels that change things up from place to place (like FOX) likely will. You can also expect channels like Univision and PBS.

These local channels are broadcasting from big towers somewhere near you. So our next step is to find out where your local broadcasters have set up shop, and how far that is from you. The key to getting the best TV antenna for your needs is to find out what those needs are!

Luckily, there are tons of sites that will do this job for you. Just punch your zip code into one of them and meet us in the next step. We like the one at AntennaWeb, but there are others out there, like the very in-depth TVFool. They’re all basically the same, and should only ask for your zip code and address. In return, they’ll push out a map or a list of nearby stations, showing you exactly how far away they are and how strong the signal will be by the time it reaches you.

 

How to Choose the Best TV Antenna for Your Region

Once you’ve submitted your address, the online apps we recommended should come back to you with a list of channels in your area and what sort of antenna you’ll need to get them. They’ll use a color-coded system that the Consumer Electronics Association developed. It’s pretty intuitive. Here’s the explanation of the colors, and here is the related pinwheel graphic:

Best TV antenna: The CEA's guide runs from yellow (you can get these with rabbit ears) to pink (you'll need an antenna the size of the Starship Enterprise).

The CEA’s guide runs from yellow (you can get these with rabbit ears) to pink (you’ll need an antenna the size of the Starship Enterprise)

Let’s answer a few questions about your antenna, using the information you got from one of those web tools we recommended above. Remember, we’re concerned with two things: how far the channels are (and therefore how weak the signal – this is what the color-coded system shows) and where they are.

 

Directional or omnidirectional?

If you see channels coming from all different directions on the little map these sites turn out, then you’ll need an omnidirectional antenna. If the channels are all coming from generally the same direction, you’ll be better off with a directional antenna. If you end up needing an omnidirectional antenna, you may need a stronger one than you would have if you’d been able to go with a directional one.

 

What size of antenna?

Here’s the rule of thumb, based on how far away the stations you’re trying to pick up are:

10 to 15 miles: small omnidirectional indoor antenna

10 to 30 miles: medium omnidirectional antenna (though you could try an amplified indoor antenna)

30 to 45 miles: medium directional antenna

More than 45 miles: large directional antenna

For the larger distances, we’re generally assuming that your stations are coming from the same direction – which is the case for most consumers in suburban and rural areas, since the nearest stations are usually clustered together in the biggest nearby population center.

For quick and easy shopping in-person, try looking for the Consumer Electronics Association’s color-coded indicator (explained above) on the side of the antenna box. The sites we used to find out local channels will do the color coding for you, so finding the right antenna type should be pretty easy.

You will also be able to look directly at the product descriptions and see what the manufacturer is claiming the range is. We recommend you look at these claims second and look at the basic antenna traits (indoor/outdoor, directional/omnidirectional, etc.) first. The manufacturer can say the range is 50 miles all day, but if it’s an indoor antenna and you’re trying to hook up a first-floor television in an area where reception is blocked by trees or hills, you may not have much luck. Unless you live in a perfectly flat and treeless area, count on getting a little less out of your antenna than the box claims.

 

Do you need an amplifier?

Amplifiers boost your signal and can help you get away with using a smaller antenna than you otherwise might have to. If you’re dealing with a smaller antenna, start without the amplifier – you can always buy one later if you discover you need it. For many larger ones, the amplifier comes built in, so there’s no need to buy any aftermarket products. Check the product description to be sure.

 

The Best TV Antenna at Each Size

Hopefully you now have some sense of what the best TV antenna for your needs will look like. But what brand should you go with?

Here are links to some of our favorite antennas – one for each type we listed above. We’ve used some of these ourselves, and we generally recommend you look at brand-name products. That means RCA, Mohu, and Winegard, among others. If you feel we’ve picked the wrong option, sound off in the comments! There are a lot of quality antennas at each price point, and as long as you’re going with a decent brand name, you should be in good shape.

Small omnidirectional indoor antenna: RCA ANT111F

Small amplified indoor antenna: Mohu Leaf

Small omnidirectional outdoor antenna: RCA ANT702F (can also be used indoors)

Medium omnidirectional outdoor antenna: 1byone

Medium directional outdoor antenna: RCA Yagi

Large omnidirectional outdoor antenna: ClearStream 4 (AntennasDirect)

Large directional outdoor antenna: Channel Master CM 3020

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About the Author

Stephen Lovely
Stephen Lovely
Stephen Lovely is a freelance writer and a longtime cord cutter with a passion for technology and entertainment. You can find his work on Cordcutting.com and his tweets at @stephenlovely.

6 Comments on "How to Choose the Best TV Antenna for Your Needs"

  1. We cut the cord around 1990 when the bill went over $40/mo. Figuring $40/mo over 26 years is $12,480. When we moved into our current house we put up a 35-feet tower and mounted two Channel Master 4228HDs on it. (The 4228HD is an 8-bay Bow Tie.) One points to a large city to the north and the other points to a large city to the south. We pull between 70 and 80 channels. Several are duplicates, several are Spanish only (we don’t speak Spanish), but we still have about 50 channels from which to choose. It cost about $900 to put up the tower, two antennas, cable, and preamp. However, I fully expect the cable industry to push for legislation that will tax or outlaw OTA systems. I haven’t heard anything about it yet, but whenever a large corporate presence sees money flowing away from them, they go to the government and ask it make the money flow TO them. After all, they have “a fiduciary responsibility to their investors.” God bless the United Corporations of America.

  2. I’m shopping for an antenna for my elderly mother. She lives in a semi-rural area in a 1-story home 35 miles north of the antenna farm where all local OTA HDTV signals originate. Her window faces south. Would you recommend a powered indoor antenna that I could place by her window? There are some trees outside her window but it not a dense forest. Some powered antennas are advertised on Amazon as good for 50 miles. Under these conditions do you think that would be a good option? I’d prefer to avoid going outdoors as this is a rental and the owner’s not very agreeable to visible modifications of the exterior of the house.

  3. So what about if I live in a foreign country? I am in Ecuador. What kind of antenna should I buy? Thanks.

  4. Be aware that AntennaWeb is very conservative. Many times AntennaWeb does not display the available channels that can be received when using a quality outdoor TV antenna. The FCC mapping system is what we recommend at https://www.fcc.gov/media/engineering/dtvmaps

  5. Lannie Tromer | June 4, 2017 at 9:16 pm | Reply

    I (semi) cut the cord last year. I researched, found my local stations all in one area 20+ miles south. Went through a few antennas and all of them lagged badly and I could not get reception on ABC at all. So I am still at the mercy of ATT for the 4 network channels. I live on the first floor with a screened patio and am completely surrounded by all of the other (cement) buildings in the complex. Condo rules forbid any external antennas and the like. Suggestions?

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