Category: Product Reviews

Useful Gadgets – Channel Master Stream+ OTA/OTT Media Player

Hard on the heels of my review of the Channel Master SMARTenna+ comes this rather odd-looking digital TV receiver. It doesn’t look like much, but thanks to tiny solid-state memory cards and miniaturization, it is a fully-functional digital TV receiver that also streams content from a variety of online channels like Google Play and YouTube.

I call the Stream+ a “sidecar” box because we haven’t anything like set-top boxes in years (especially since our TVs don’t have “set tops” to begin with). Even so, many contemporary designs for STBs are still rectangular boxes that can be difficult to fit alongside or under an LCD or OLED TV.

There are signs that manufacturers are willing to break those rules, such as the “puck” tuner for Internet-delivered cable TV channels that Arris has shown at NAB. Channel Master’s Stream+ fits into that mold nicely: It stands all of 3 inches tall and measures 3 inches in diameter at the top and 4 inches across its base. You aren’t likely to notice it on your elegant TV stand, and you might even be able to tuck it under a big flat screen set.

OUT OF THE BOX

Channel Master’s Stream+ box looks more like a voice control gadget than a digital TV receiver.

There are only a few connections you need to make to start using the Stream+. Plug in the external AC adapter, run an HDMI cable to your TV, and connect an antenna to the RF input to pull in local stations. There’s also a USB port for a future DVR product, along with a Micro SD card slot. Plug in a memory card here and it will function as your DVR.

Two connectors remain. One is a wired Ethernet port in case you want a physical connection to your network, and there’s also an optical SPDIF output to drive a separate AV receiver or sound bar. The Stream+ also supports 802.11ac dual-band WiFi connectivity, which makes streaming video content a lot easier – the 5 GHz band is nowhere as congested as the 2.4 GHz band, and channel-bonding technology increases bandwidth “on the fly” for video.

Did I mention that the Stream+ is “4K ready?” If you have a 4K TV, connect a 4K HDMI cable from the Stream+ to your TV. The HDMI port is version 2.0 with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, so if you come across any 4K streaming content, you can watch it at full resolution. (Sorry, no 4K OTA broadcasts are available yet.) The USB port mentioned earlier is version 3.0 with fast transfer speeds and It would be a good idea to pick up an external hard or flash drive for recording shows. (Channel Master recommends at least a 1 terabyte (TB) drive for recording.)

The connector complement on Stream+ is minimal, but functional. If you can’t make a wired network connection, Stream+ supports 2.4 and 5 GHz 802.11ac WiFi.

In addition to supporting MPEG2 decoding, the standard for over-the-air broadcasts, this little box can also decode MPEG4 H.264 and HEVC H.265 content. What that means is that you’ll be ready to watch just about any streaming content you come across.

Things aren’t so sanguine for broadcast television. The current version of digital TV in this country uses 8VSB modulation with MPEG2 encoding, but ATSC 3.0 (if and when it gets launched and adopted) works on an entirely different modulation system – Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, or OFDM. This latter system is the basis for digital TV broadcasting in most of the world. The Stream+ isn’t compatible with ATSC 3.0, but it’s still early in the game and you should get quite a few years of service from this sidecar tuner.

Another cool feature is speech recognition. Push the microphone icon and you can navigate through channels, bring up the guide, and find programs simply by using your voice. This is becoming a very popular feature on cable boxes and smart TVs and couch potatoes love it. The Stream+ uses Android TV to provide guide info on all broadcast and streaming channels and include Chromecast support.

SETTING UP

Channel Master doesn’t provide a full operating manual for the Stream+. Instead, they provide a simple “quick start guide,” so you can get up and running. Once you’ve made your power, HDMI, and wired network connections, you can start scanning for channels. If you don’t have access to a wired Ethernet connection, you will be prompted to select a WiFi network and enter the password.

The whole process takes less than 5 minutes, during which time you will also be asked if you want to pair the Channel Master remote control with your TV and/or sound bar. I would say, “go for it!” as the CM remote is compact and sports a minimal number of buttons and has excellent range. (It’s not backlit, though.)

The Stream+ remote control has a very simple layout, big buttons, and even a voice control function. (But it’s not backlit. Oh, well…)

The channel scan proceeds quickly, no doubt aided by the fact that we’re in the midst of a massive channel re-pack that will contract the UHF television band to channels 14 through 36 by 2020. In my market, many stations have started “channel sharing,” meaning that two or more minor channels of television are combined in the same encoder multiplex. No worries – the Stream+ will pick them up and sort them nicely into the Android program guide. All you need to do is to scan and then they’ll populate the “Live TV” tab.

If you have a Google account, you’ll be prompted to sign into that account. During the setup process, you’ll be prompted to enter a code sent to you by Google that will link your account to the Stream+. Your location will also be required to download the program guide for your local stations. Once you’ve linked the Stream+ to your Google account, you can download and watch movies and TV shows for Google Play and stream video from YouTube.

I tested the Stream+ with CM’s SMARTenna+ and they do work well together. However, if you have any low-band VHF channels (2-6) and or high-band VHF channels (7-13) active in your market, you probably won’t pick them up with this antenna unless you live super-close to the transmitters. The SMARTenna+ is optimized for UHF reception only, so drag out those rabbit ears!

IN USE

Because I inadvertently skipped a couple of steps the first time I set up the Stream+, there were no OTA channels in my “Live Channels” list – just Google Play at 1-1. A reset to factory values and repeating all of the setup steps fixed the problem. Stream+ reads the Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) of your TV and will recognize it, bringing up a set of IR codes to try out with the CM remote. In my case, the test TV was a 2011-vintage Samsung 46-inch LCD with a matching Samsung soundbar, and I was able to find IR codes that controlled both.

Navigating between live channels and apps is pretty easy, although I didn’t always land on the video I wanted. For example, the Stream+ menu bar suggested a YouTube video about sports collectibles and when I clicked on it, I wound up watching the ABC-TV affiliate in Orlando, Florida. It took a few tries to get the feature video to play back correctly.

Also, you can’t navigate to an OTA channel using the voice function. Every time I tried this by saying “Watch live TV” or “watch [channel] name,” I got a tab showing numerous video clips on YouTube – all having the same name. I even tried searching for a local channel using their “branded” moniker (i.e. 6ABC, NBC10, etc.) and the same thing happened – I wound up with listings for YouTube video clips from those channels.

The solution is simply to select “Live Channels” and navigate through them with the channel selector, or bring up the program guide, navigate to the desired channel, and push the OK button on the remote. To record a program, simply scroll to it in the program guide and you’ll be prompted to (a) record just this episode, or (b) record the entire series. If you want to record a show while watching it, just push the Play/Pause button and scroll to the Record button (a red dot). Stream+ will let you record two live programs at the same time while watching a recorded program or using a streaming service.

Note that a removable drive can’t be used to record programs. I suspect that was done to ensure against illegal copying and sharing of programs. If you connect a large Micro SD card or an external drive, they will be both be formatted to work specifically with the Stream+ and not with computers. The Micro SD card approach is appealing because it doesn’t take up any additional room and card prices have dropped to reasonable levels.

CONCLUSION

This product is a big step up from the company’s previous set-top box and having the Android TV OS onboard results in an integrated package and program guide that would give TiVo a run for its money. I would like the voice-activated control a lot better if it actually let me switch between line channels on the fly, instead of taking me to a tile window showing YouTube videos.

Still, if you are ready to “cut the cord” and live in a metropolitan area, you could exist quite nicely on a diet of free, over-the-air television and streaming services such as Google Play. And you’re not limited to Google offerings: You can download the apps for other streaming services from the Google Play store and run those just as easily with Stream+. At an MSRP of $149, Stream+ won’t break the bank, either.

Channel Master CM-7600 Smart+ Media Player

MSRP: $149

Available from Channel Master, Amazon, and other retailers

More info: https://www.channelmaster.com/Stream_Plus_p/cm-7600.htm#Header_ProductDetail_TechSpecs

Useful Gadgets (And They’re Smart, Too!): IO Gear Ultra Long Range Wireless HDMI Link And Amped Wireless Apollo PRO Long Range HD Web Cam

My last “The Front Line” post talked about how the world of consumer electronics has become heavily commoditized (you can buy a lot of functionality for a few dollars these days) and also how smart these gadgets are becoming (artificial intelligence and machine learning have become increasingly important).

The third “leg” of that triad is, of course, wireless connectivity. Without it, most of these gadgets we use today would not even exist, or at the least become largely impractical. Yes, we could install a remote monitoring camera and run power and coaxial cables to it, and we could also run a cable from our tablet to a smart TV to share a video. But that’s just too much work, right?

The two products in this review take full advantage of wireless connectivity. And they’ve also got a limited amount of artificial intelligence in that most of the setup and connection required is performed automatically with minimal human intervention. One product lets you stream wireless video (up to Full HD resolution) over a maximum claimed distance of 600 feet, while the other streams wireless HD video through your home WiFi network to a connected smartphone, tablet, or PC.

IO Gear makes a variety of wireless connectivity products. Their Ultra Long Range Wireless HDMI Transmitter (model # GWLRHDTX, MSRP $199.95) and matching receiver (model # GWLRHDRX, MSRP $199.95) offer the longest transmission distance and use HDMI connections for input and output.

These are not small products. Each unit measures 7.6” x 4.5” x 1.75” and weighs 1.35 pounds, so they’re really intended for permanent installations in places like a lecture hall, church, large meeting room, stadium, or auditorium. At $400 a pair, they’re also more of a commercial AV product than a consumer product, but there might be some consumer installations that would porting HD video over a long distance.

IO Gear’s wireless HDMI transmitter (left) and receiver (right).

The technology behind this product uses bonded WiFi channels in the 5 GHz spectrum to establish and maintain the wireless link. You may already have a wireless modem/gateway in your home that employs this connection mode, known by its formal name of IEEE 802.11ac. With channel bonding, two, three, or four 20 MHz channels can be combined to increase bandwidth. The source video, which has a much higher bandwidth to start with, undergoes light compression (usually in the color channel) to fit.

This process, using OFDM modulation, also requires some form of error correction to recover lost packets. The result is high-quality video from the receiver that has about 1.5 seconds of latency from the source video, which means you wouldn’t want to install this system in the same room where a live event was happening unless all video and audio sources had the same delay interval.

IO Gear’s wireless HDMI transmitter, operating from my basement to transmit an off-air signal to my home theater.

 

The IO Gear wireless HDMI receiver sending the signal to a 15-inch broadcast monitor for analysis.

 

The received signal as seen on my 92-inch projection screen, illuminated by a Mitsubishi HC6000 projector.

However, if you want to link HD video over a path that would require an excessively-long wired link or would make installing cable impractical, then the IO Gear products would make a lot of sense. In my tests, the receiver and transmitter found and linked to each other in less than 30 seconds, with the transmitter connected to an HD video source in my basement and the receiver driving a 40-inch HDTV in an upstairs bathroom. This path, through multiple walls and floors, was about 60 feet.

I should point out that wireless HDMI links can use either 9 or 24 channels in the 5 GHz UNII band. Models that can transmit on all 24 channels must be equipped with transmit power control (TPC), using the lowest power possible to maintain the link, and dynamic frequency selection (DFS) to avoid interference to other operations sharing the spectrum. In urban areas, you may find it takes longer to discover a clear channel and set up the link.

Amped Wireless’ Apollo Pro Long Range WiFi HD camera (MSRP $159.99) is another high-performance product that has some smarts. Unlike the IO Gear system, the Apollo Pro operates in the more congested 2.4 GHz WiFi band (a decision that doesn’t make much sense to me). Its output power of nearly 1 watt does give the camera greatly extended range, but in an urban area with dense WiFi use, it may be difficult to locate and maintain an open channel for the camera.

The Apollo PRO in operation, hidden near some holiday decorations to monitor my front hall (and my cat!).

 

Some of the menu settings on the Apollo PRO as seen on a Samsung Galaxy tablet.

Setting up the Apollo Pro is simple. You simply link your device to the WiFi signal broadcast by the camera, then download the Apollo Pro app from Google Play or iTunes. Launch the app and connect the camera to your home WiFi network. You’ll need to establish an account with Amped Wireless to log in and see your camera’s output, and you can have multiple cameras running at the same time.

The Apollo pro comes with a mounting base (not recommended for outside use unless you live in a very dry climate) and has a long USB-to-AC power cord. The camera has a super-wide 110o field of view and a 10x zoom. The output is 1280x720p HD video in full color, but there is also an array of infrared light-emitting diodes (LEDs) around the perimeter of the camera for night-time viewing. (As with the IO Gear products, you will experience some latency with the Apollo Pro of about 2 seconds from live.)

So, where’s the AI part? You can set the camera up to respond to motion, sound, or both to initiate a recording. The camera can also alert you that it is indeed recording and (here’s where the registered account comes in) saving your recording to the cloud – specifically, a could server maintained by Amped Wireless. The company Web site states that, “…you can relive, save and share what your camera saw when you weren’t watching. Starting at just $3 a month, you can choose a Recording Plan that saves a clip each time the Camera detects sound or motion.”

Daytime (full color) video as viewed on a Samsung Galaxy tablet.

 

Nighttime operating mode gives you black and white images illuminated by infrared LEDs.

That’s pretty much the case with all the WiFi cameras I’ve seen at CES and at retail. The prices are very low, but you’re expected to take out a monthly subscription to access your cloud recordings after the buy-in. I’d prefer a set-up that lets you archive to your own cloud storage, connected to your home WiFi network, with an option to archive your recordings periodically to a remote server for safe storage.

In my tests, I used the camera to monitor my front hall and figure out what one of my cats does, late every night, when he goes downstairs and wanders around howling for about 20 minutes. With the camera’s IR lighting (with images in black and white), I was able to see that he’s actually playing with a small fuzzy ball, pushing it all over the floor – something he will not do when any humans are present.

I also used the Apollo Pro’s built-in speaker and microphone system to talk to him while he was playing and convince him to come back upstairs, albeit with a very confused look on his face. (The howling is cute for a couple of minutes, and then it becomes very annoying!) These tests showed that the camera has decent dynamic range, avoiding excessive auto-irising with intense light from outside windows and maintaining shadow detail indoors.

THE WRAP-UP

Both products show just how far we’ve advanced with ‘smart’ wireless products. The IO Gear Wireless HDMI system maintained a reliable link through several floors in my house with no visible deterioration in signal quality (I also tested image quality on my 92-inch home theater screen with a 1080p projector). At $400 for a pair, it is pricey for the home market and is better suited for commercial installations.

The Apollo Pro camera worked fine no matter where I took my Samsung tablet inside or outside my house. I’d like the latency to be shorter and I’d much prefer the camera operate exclusively in the 5 GHz radio band where there is not nearly as much activity and less chance for interference. It’s also a bit pricey at $160 – I’ve seen WiFi cameras for less than $100 – but the added range may justify the cost for some users.

Useful Gadgets: Winegard FlatWave AIR Amplified Outdoor TV Antenna

Winegard is one of the oldest names in the TV antenna business, having started up in 1954 as analog TV broadcasting was just getting out of the gate. Along the way, they’ve branched into satellite antennas, RV antennas, WiFi antennas, and a host of related accessories.

I’ve tested many Winegard antennas over the years, going back to traditional rooftop log-periodic UHF/VHF TV designs and more recently, super-flat indoor TV antennas (FlatWave) that have generally performed well.

The FlatWave AIR ($99), which I received recently for testing, is an updated version of an antenna I reviewed over 15 years ago that was intended for outdoor installation. It’s a large, box-like housing (14” x 14” x 4”) that clamps to a standard 1 ½” TV mast or a small angle bracket that can be fastened to a roof, the side of a house, or even a deck railing, as the company’s Web site shows.

Winegard’s FlatWave AIR amplified antenna is about as inconspicuous as you can get!

Some other product highlights from the Winegard Web site:

  • Meets Homeowners Association (HOA) Requirements for mounting outdoors (FCC Over-the-Air Reception Devices [“OTARD”] Rule of 1996)
  • Separately amplifies VHF and UHF signals to reduce intermodulation, thereby maintaining the purest signal path possible
  • Bandpass filters remove unwanted RF interference for unsurpassed performance
  • 10x more power handling capabilities than existing antennas

 

In my earlier review, I found the original design lacking when it came to reception of weaker TV stations that were in my “receivable” location, according to TVFool.com. That antenna had better performance on UHF channels than on VHF channels, and no wonder: The physical size of the antenna elements was too small in term of wavelength to pull in stations in channels 2-6, not to mention 7-13.

So what’s changed over the years? Not the outside design, although the mounting pipe is smaller and lighter. This time around, Winegard has added an inline amplifier to boost signal strength (hence the claim of “10x more power handling capabilities”). Does it make a difference? Read on, and find out.

The FlatWave AIR under test.

THE TEST

Back in early August, I tested several new outdoor TV antennas from Antennas Direct and compared them to older designs from over a decade ago. For this test, I replicated the setup I used then, with two 5’ mast sections on my deck to support the antenna and a Hauppauge Aero-M USB stuck receiver to pull in the stations.

Additional documentation and verification came via an AVCOM spectrum analyzer and TS Reader MPEG2 stream analyzing software. I considered the station to be successfully received if I was able to tune it in using TS Reader and it had a low Bit Error Rate (BER) with minimal dropped packets.

The antenna was aimed in two directions – south-southwest to pull in Philadelphia DTV stations from the Roxborough antenna farm, and north-northwest to pull in a handful of stations from the Allentown/Bethlehem area. I logged the MPEG streams from each station and also captured their 8VSB signal waveforms.

Nothing like sitting outside on a hot day and testing antennas!

THE RESULTS

There are plenty of VHF and UHF TV stations that should be easily receivable at my location. As the August test showed, I can pull in most of them with nothing more than a simple 3-element Yagi made from hardware store parts. The low-band and high-band VHF stations in my area can be a bit of a challenge with that approach, but even adding a simple dipole element solves the problem.

I identified 15 stations available in both test directions that should be receivable and two additional lower-power stations that some antennas might pull in. These channels cover all of the major networks – ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, CW – plus some independent stations. All but one of these stations are multicasting at least one additional channel.

In my August test, none of the antennas pulled in fewer than 11 stations, and the weakest performer (ClearStream’s 2V) isn’t even sold anymore – it’s been replaced by the 2MAX, one of my stronger performers.

This table shows how the FlatWave AIR stacked up to some of the competition from August 2017.

The FlatWave AIR matched that score with 10 UHF stations and one VHF from Bethlehem when pointed towards Philadelphia. (WTXF’s repeater on channel 38 was only receivable to the northwest.) It did receive the two lower-power “bonus” stations, but so did just about every other antenna from the August test. What was particularly vexing was the inability to pull in WPVI’s very strong signal on channel 6, not to mention WHYY on channel 12 – two “must receive” channels in this market, as they are the ABC and PBS affiliates respectively and aren’t particularly difficult to receive.

Oddly, I did manage to pull in WPVI intermittently with the FlatWave AIR aimed 90 degrees away from the correct beam heading. That’s an indication of very low directivity and an antenna pattern that may have trouble rejecting interfering signals.

This spectrum analyzer screen shot shows one reason why I couldn’t receive WPVI: The noise floor was insanely high. (Forget about KJWP on channel 2!)

 

For comparison, here’s what the same spectrum looks like when using the ClearStream 2MAX antenna. Note the complete lack of spectral noise and the tall, clean carrier from WPVI. That mountain range to the right is made up of FM stations.

 

WHYY’s signal on channel 12 was also a no-go – it would come through intermittently and just as quickly disappear.

 

And here’s what WBPH-9 and WHYY-12 look like using the ClearStream 2MAX.

Another thing I saw with this antenna caused me a lot of concern, and that was tons of spectral noise from 56 to 88 MHz. That noise wiped out KJWP’s signal on channel 2 and another low-power station on channel 4, not to mention almost swallowing WPVI’s carrier on channel 6 entirely. I have no idea where it was coming from, but conventional Yagi antennas don’t see it at all – only loop antennas like the 2V have picked it up before. It’s also possible the noise is being generated in the amplifier, a problem I used to encounter with low-cost Radio Shack in-line RF amplifiers.

But the real design flaw with the FlatWave AIR is the lack of an active antenna element for low-band and high-band VHF TV reception, such as the ones found on the ClearStream 1MAX and 2MAX antennas. With the recent FCC TV channel auction complete, all channels above 36 are going away to be re-purposed for other services. Losing 15 channels means a lot of TV stations that were kicked off those channels will need to relocate, and many of them will wind up on low-band VHF assignments – the “low rent district” of broadcast operations.

That lack of low-band VHF reception means some viewers might not be able to pull in their favorite stations after channels have been repacked. Throw in a lot of man-made and natural spectral noise and interference, and you will have a lot of dissatisfied customers calling 1-800 numbers, or returning products to stores.

The FlatWave AIR is a decent performer on UHF channels. Here’s a few of the UHF spectrum from WPHL-17 (far left) to WFMZ-46 (far right). Just about every channel in this range came in cleanly.

CONCLUSION

If you live close to TV towers and there isn’t a lot of spectral noise in your area, the FlatWave Air may well do the job for you. By “close,” I mean within 10-15 miles with a line-of-sight path (my test location is 20+ miles away and blocked by two hills). UHF should be no problem; high-band VHF will probably work okay. But low-band VHF could be a challenge.

Winegard might want to consider an add-on kit for VHF reception that would be nothing more than a pair of screw-in or slide-in-and-lock rigid antenna elements. They shouldn’t detract much from the overall appearance of the antenna and would improve its performance noticeably. With channels 2-6 being resurrected from the grave, reliable reception of those channels will become a must-have.

Useful Gadgets: Antennas Direct ClearStream 2MAX and 4MAX Indoor/Outdoor TV Antennas

If you watch enough late-night television or independent local TV stations, you’ll eventually see an ad where George Forman, former heavyweight boxing champion, smiles at the camera and says, “People are always asking me: George, how do I patent my invention?”

Now, I’m pretty sure NO ONE has ever asked George Forman how to patent an invention, just as NO ONE has ever asked me for advice on how to become a championship boxer. On the other hand, I frequently get asked two questions – “What model of TV should I buy?” and “I want to drop cable TV. Can you recommend a good antenna?”

Lately, my answer to the first question is usually “Buy any TV you like. They’re so cheap now that you can just recycle it at the end of the year if you aren’t happy with it.” (I’m not being facetious: I just got a press release from RCA announcing a 50-inch Full HDTV with built-in Roku software for $499 and I’ve seen basic Ultra HDTV 50-inch sets from Hisense for less than that.)

My answer to the second question is a bit more measured. I need to know details before I can give out any practical advice. Do you want an indoor or outdoor antenna? How far do you live from the transmitter site(s)? What obstructions (hills, buildings, towers, etc) are near your home?

My most recent review of TV antennas focused on indoor models, which generally disappoint (with the exception of Mohu and Winegard). In most cases, my trusty $4.99 Radio Shack bow-tie antenna is more than adequate for that job, and if the signals are a bit weak, a low-noise, medium-gain amplifier fixes the problem. Granted; not a very sexy-looking antenna, but function always trumps form when it comes to pulling in TV stations.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal details how Millennials seem astonished that “yes, Virginia; it is possible to watch television for free!” And all you need to do is (a) pick up some sort of TV antenna – yes, they still make those relics of the mid-20th century, (b) connect it to that threaded F-connector on the back of your TV set or pick up a USB tuner stick for your laptop, and (c) do a channel scan.

A few minutes later, you’re able to enjoy HDTV content from ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, The CW, My TV, PBS, and other outlets. On secondary channels like Antenna, Comet, and Me TV, you can enjoy those great old black-and-white and color shows your parents and grandparents watched back in the day, like The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Three’s Company, M.A.S.H. and The A-Team. And of course, your local news and weather (and emergency alerts) is always available, as are NFL games, the World Series, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA Finals, Olympics, NASCAR and Indy Car racing  (I could go on and on….).

With an increasing number of people ditching expensive pay TV channel packages for fast broadband and video streaming (a/k/a “cutting the cord”); installing an antenna to pick up channels for free seems like a no-brainer. And you can happily ignore the occasional spat between your local cable TV provider and a major TV network over retransmission fees that usually results in a broadcast network channel being blacked out.

Plus, in case of severe weather, you have a Plan B if you lose landline telephone, cable TV, and broadband service. (It happens!) At which point the cellular phone networks get swamped and are often unusable. But you’re a cord-cutting smartie – pick up a battery-powered portable TV and you can stay in touch with weather updates. If you have a generator in your home (like I do), simply switch your TV to the antenna setting and you can continue watching while the utility crews struggle to remove fallen trees and re-string wires.

Ah, what better fun than to sit on your deck on a beautiful summer day and play with TV antennas!

THE CONTENDERS

Antennas Direct recently sent me review samples of their new ClearStream 2MAX (MSRP $79.99) and 4MAX (MSRP $149.99) indoor/outdoor TV antennas. (AD brands them as “HDTV antennas,” but that’s misleading marketing – HDTV is a picture format, not an RF transmission format. And some broadcast stations transmit standard definition TV on their sub-channels. (Hey, that UHF bow tie pulls in HD broadcasts, too!)

I’ve tested numerous ClearStream antennas in the past, and just for fun, I pulled a couple out of storage to use in this test for comparisons; the 1V and 2V (no longer offered). I also dug up one of Channel Master’Channel Master’s STEALTHtenna 50 models (MSRP $29.00) and added it to the pile, and to top things off, I included my home-brew ‘ugly duckling” 3-element UHF yagi antenna.

The ClearStream 2MAX antenna under test atop a 10-foot mast.

 

The ClearStream 4MAX struts its stuff.

 

Channel Master’s STEALTHtenna joins the fun…

 

…as did my 3-element “ugly duckling” compact UHF yagi antenna.

The 2MAX and 4MAX antennas are basically loop designs. They should exhibit broadband frequency response across the UHF TV band, although they’re too small to have much gain at low-band VHF (channels 2-6) and high-band VHF (channels 7-13) frequencies. That’s where the single dipole element comes in – it works better for channels 7-13, but is still a bit small for reception of 2 through 6.

Channel Master’s STEALTHtenna is more of a directional design as it is a six-element yagi for high-band VHF and UHF. CM claims 9 dB gain on UHF and 6 dB gain on VHF, compared to the published gain specifications of 2.6 dB on VHF and 8.7 dB on UHF for the 2MAX and 2.5 dB on VHF and 11 dB on UHF for the 4MAX. The low VHF gain figures for the 2MAX and 4MAX are precisely because a single dipole element is being used for VHF – and it has a figure-8 reception pattern front and back.

I’ve never calculated the gain of my ‘ugly duckling’ 3-element UHF antenna, but it would be at least 6 dB since it is directional, but has a wide (75-degree) antenna pattern. Still, it is a useful benchmark for basic TV reception and works surprisingly well, with a full-wave loop driven element resonant around 600 MHz and an aluminum-screen reflector.

Each antenna was placed atop this 10-foot mast and aimed in two directions for the test.

 

Each antenna was tested with and without the ClearStream Juice mast-mounted preamplifier. (Well, the mast was only 15 feet away from the test equipment…)

 

Hauppauge’s WinTV Aero-M USB stick receiver, TS Reader software, and a spectrum analyzer performed the critical measurements.

THE TEST

The weather on test day was spectacular – it had dropped into the high 50s the night before and a tropospheric weather duct was present, bringing in strong UHF TV signals from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre PA; over 70 miles to the north. The signals from WVIA-41, WOLF-45, and WNEP-50 were so strong I could pick them up with the 3-element UHF yagi with no amplification! As the morning wore on and the air heated up, the duct quickly disappeared.

I set up everything on my rear deck with two 5-foot Radio Shack mast sections siting in a tripod mount holding up each test antenna. I aimed it north-northwest to pull in stations from Allentown/Bethlehem PA (about 25 miles away) and south-southwest to pull in Philadelphia stations (over 20 miles away with some obstructions). Each antenna was tested with and without a preamplifier (ClearStream Juice, $79.99) to try and pull in a pair of low-band VHF channels (KJWP-2 and WPVI-6), two high-band VHF channels (WBPH-9 and WHYY-12), and a host of UHF stations.

I captured the spectral views for each antenna/amplifier combination and used TS Reader software to decode the MPEG transport stream and verify reception through a Hauppauge Aero-M USB tuner stick. If the station locked up quickly with a low or zero bit error rate (BER), then I checked it off as received. If I saw tiling on the image or a high BER, then reception was considered unsuccessful. I also tuned in selected signals to watch the content and verify reception.

While UHF reception for smaller antennas is generally easy, there are some lower-power stations in Philly that don’t always show up in a channel scan, so I gave bonus points for pulling in two of these stations (WTVE-25 and WGTW-27). I was also very interested to see how each antenna performed with low-band VHF channels – a part of the spectrum that’s particularly susceptible to atmospheric and man –made noise, especially with indoor antennas.

Here’s what the Philadelphia UHF TV spectrum looked like using the ‘ugly duckling’ 3-element UHF yagi with amplification.

 

The same spectral view as seen with the Channel Master STEALTHtenna and amplifier…

 

…the ClearStream 2MAX antenna with amplification…

 

…and the ClearStream 4MAX antenna with amplification.

 

Just for fun, here’s the UHF spectral view captured with the discontinued ClearStream 1V through an amplifier. If you’re not seeing a big difference in performance across the commercial antennas, welcome to the club.

In general, the easiest signals to capture came from WPVI-6, WBPH-9, WPHL-17, KYW-26, WCAU-34, WYBE-35, WLVT-39, and WFMZ-46 (that last one runs over 5 million watts ERP). KJWP-2, WUVP-29, and WTXF-42 can all be problematic, as are the two lower-power stations mentioned earlier. In addition, WTXF has a repeater in channel 38 in the Lehigh Valley, so I checked for that one as well.

Why’d I test with the Juice preamplifier? The 8VSB transmission system used for digital television in the U.S. has a theoretical minimum carrier-to-noise ratio of 15 dB – but that’s in a perfect environment. In the real world, signal reflections and distortion make it harder for the adaptive equalizers in an 8VSB receiver to pull in a DTV broadcast.

Amplifying the signal at the antenna (not at the TV) boosts the overall C/N ratio and makes it easier for the equalizers to do their jobs. Plus, it provides access to more distant signals: With a 5-element high-band VHF yagi and Channel Master mast-mounted low-noise preamp, I can watch New York City DTV stations that are over 60 miles away – through two ranges of hills.

THE RESULTS

Table 1 shows the final results for each antenna running ‘barefoot’ – no amplifier. Each antenna gave a good accounting of itself with the 4MAX taking top honors, pulling in 13 stations. Oddly enough, the discontinued 2V grabbed WTVE-25 for a bonus, but still was good for only 11 stations. The ‘ugly duckling’ did about as well as expected since it has zero gain at VHF frequencies, pulling in 7 UHF stations while Channel Master’s STEALTHtenna grabbed just one more.

Table 1. Comparative performance of all antennas without amplification.

 

A real head-scratcher? The ClearStream 1V (discontinued) came up just one channel short to the 4MAX and out-performed the 2MAX (9 channels) and 2V (11 channels). Go figure! Of course, the 1V and 2V have mesh screen reflectors, giving the antennas some degree of directivity over the 2MAX and 4MAX.

Table 2 shows what happened when a Juice preamplifier was inserted inline, leveling the playing field.  The ‘ugly duckling’ UHF yagi captured 1 VHF and 11 UHF signals – not bad. That tied it with the 1V loop antenna, edging out the larger 2V dual-loop by one station although both of the older ‘loopers’ found the bonus stations. The amplified 2MAX managed to sniff out 14 stations plus two bonus stations for a grand total of 16, tying the amplified 4MAX (it couldn’t pull in WTVE-25).

Table 2. Comparative performance of all antennas using the Juice preamplifier.

 

But the overall winner in this category was the $29 STEALTHtenna, receiving every possible station in the table including the two bonus channels for a grand total of 17 stations. It tied the 4MAX on the 15 ‘core’ VHF and UHF channels, too. Just goes to show you that a good antenna design doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg – you could buy 5 STEALTHtennas for the cost of one 4MAX. (Actually, you could buy two STEALTHtennas; mount them on a mast a half-wavelength apart, and run them into a combiner and mast-mounted preamp to add gain to your system.)

KJWP-2 and WPVI-6 as received by the Channel Master STEALTHtenna using amplification. This setup worked very well in the noisy low-band VHF spectrum.

 

The same channels as seen by the 2MAX antenna with amplification…

 

…and the 4MAX antenna with amplification.

 

The discontinued ClearStream 2V might have been a strong performer on UHF channels, but it’s overwhelmed with noise on low-band VHF channels.

 

To be fair, a difference of one station either way doesn’t really define a “winner” and a “loser” in this test. I might easily have had different results if I moved antennas to either side or changed their elevation. (That’s why each antenna was tested in the exact same location.) I will say that based on my results, I’m not sure you’d need to upgrade to the 4MAX for an additional $70 over the 2MAX – there was a 4-channel difference when both antennas were unamplified, but they tied with the Juice in line.

That’s a lot of extra dough for not much difference in performance, and if you live more than 20 miles from your local TV transmitters the money would be better spent on a mast-mounted preamplifier – especially if you plan to distribute signals to more than one TV through splitters (a two-way splitter will drop signal levels by about 3.5 dB at each port.).