Category: Product Reviews

Antennas, Antennas, On The Wall…Who Has The Best Reception Of Them All?

It’s been a L-O-N-G time since I conducted tests of indoor TV antennas. More than a year and a half, to be exact. Yet during that time, various samples have been showing up at my door to be added to the “eventually get around to it” pile in my lab.

Well, I eventually DID get around to it. Some downtime this week gave me the motivation to haul out all of those production samples, set up my spectrum analyzer, and also give Channel Master’s new DVR+ ATSC receiver/DVR a workout.

Unlike my past tests, which took place mostly in northern New Jersey, I opted to stay at home this time and give each of the contenders a shakeout in my upstairs office. Indoor DTV reception at my house is by no means easy – my location is over 20 miles from the Philadelphia (Roxborough) TV towers, and according to TVFool.com, I have a 2-Edge path, meaning there are some hills in the way.

Still, there’s enough RF coming into the room to make this test worthwhile. And my timing couldn’t be better, as numerous research reports and news stories show that, slowly but surely, an increasing number of homes are “cutting the cord” and using a combination of free, over-the-air TV with Internet streaming to get their daily fix of video.

A recent report by The Diffusion Group shows that 14% of all broadband homes don’t subscribe to pay TV, up from 9% in 2011. The report states that about 75% of U.S. households now have broadband service, so that means 13 million homes are doing just fine without the likes of DirecTV and Comcast.

Significantly, 2013 was the first year that pay TV companies saw a net loss of subscribers, even though it was only several tens of thousands. But that result flew in the face of experienced analysts who predicted only a few years earlier that consumers would never give up on cable and satellite television subscriptions.

Funny thing about that: At some point, the monthly cost of pay TV channel packages got so high that people reached their breaking point and said, “Enough!” It’s no surprise that Netflix has more subscribers than Comcast, Time-Warner, or any other MSO (50 million and growing in the U.S.). And it’s even less of a surprise that HBO and CBS announced video streaming services last month to reach cord-cutters: They’ve clearly read the writing on the wall.

While those stories are compelling, they’re beyond the scope of this review. So let’s refocus on the task at hand, which is to determine how well each of the test antennas performed with the DVR+.

THE CONTENDERS

Mohu, who has developed some pretty clever antenna designs, sent along their Leaf Metro ($24.99) several months ago. This compact package bears a remarkable resemblance to the trusty UHF bow-tie antenna that decorated so many old tube TVs back in the day, and which was eventually dropped from most product lines because (a) it was too inexpensive, and (b) it didn’t look cool enough.

Mohu’s Leaf Ultimate ($69.99, now called the Leaf 50) has also been sitting on the shelf for a while, and I did hook it up for one of my previous antenna tests. Unlike the Metro, the Leaf 50 is an amplified design and uses an external preamp cartridge that installs in-line and uses either USB power from your TV or a supplied wall transformer.

Mohu's Leaf Metro is very reasonably priced and doesn't take up much room.

Mohu’s Leaf Metro is very reasonably priced and doesn’t take up much room.

The Leaf 50 (formerly known as Prince - no, wait, the Leaf Ultimate) is a solid performer and makes this box look good...

The Leaf 50 (formerly known as Prince – no, wait, the Leaf Ultimate) is a solid performer and makes this box look good…

Rounding out the Mohu triumvirate is the Curve 30 ($49.99), another rectangular-shaped flat antenna that sits on a shelf with a supporting bracket. It doesn’t use an amplifier and is intended for close-in (30 miles or less) operation.

From Antennas Direct, we have the ClearStream Eclipse ($59.99) with inline amplifier. It’s not much more than a tapered loop, but what’s unique about this design is the adhesive attached to the front of the loop: Simply peel off the protective backing and stick it on a window. Or wall. (Or an annoying relative who’s fallen asleep on the couch.)

Mohu's Curve makes a better interior decoration than antenna in my tests.

Mohu’s Curve makes a better interior decoration than antenna in my tests.

 

The ClearStream Eclipse can stick to just about any surface.

The ClearStream Eclipse can stick to just about any surface.

 

The FlatWave Amped works very well and its motives are transparent.

The FlatWave Amped works very well and its motives are transparent.

From Winegard, we have the FlatWave Amped ($64.99), a flexible multi-band antenna with preamplifier embedded in the housing, right where the mini coax attaches. Like the Leaf 50, the FlatWave Amped can be attached to just about any non-metallic surface or just hung on a wall.

Finally, just for fun, I threw in an RCA ANT1050 ($12.99) that I had replaced with a Mohu Leaf earlier this year for a friend’s sports collectibles store. This is a strange-looking design, but is basically a pair of folded dipoles in a flexible plastic housing that you can attach to just about any surface.

I wanted to call this the "BatTenna." Wonder why...

I wanted to call this the “BatTenna.” Wonder why…

 

OK, the bow tie doesn't look like much, but it will give you hours of enjoyment - much more than a $3.99 latte macchiato!

OK, the bow tie doesn’t look like much, but it will give you hours of enjoyment – much more than a $3.99 latte macchiato!

And for even more fun, I dug up one of my trusty UHF bowtie antennas to use as a “control” for all of my tests. When Radio Shack used to sell these, they cost all of $3.99 a pop. And therein lies the problem – there’s just no money to be made selling these anymore; not when you can get ten times that amount of money for a flexible antenna design.

Part of my test rig, consisting of my trusty Toshiba laptop and an AVCOM PSA2500C spectrum analyzer.

Part of my test rig, consisting of my trusty Toshiba laptop and an AVCOM PSA2500C spectrum analyzer.

THE TESTS

For this test, I went with a simple but reliable methodology: I set up the bow tie antenna on a small table, in a spot where my spectrum analyzer indicated good signal levels on VHF and UHF. The feed from the bow tie went to a two-way splitter, and two identical 10’ lengths of RG-6 connected from there to the DVR+ and to my analyzer.

After running a channel scan on the CM DVR+, I “looked” at each received channel with the analyzer (and captured numerous screens as JPEGs for reference). Then, I switched the antenna feed over from the analyzer to my Hauppauge Aero-M receiver (plugged into my laptop) and used TS Reader to look at the MPEG stream from each station that was successfully received. If I saw nothing but green bars and a low bit error rate (BER), the station was logged under the “Yes” column. If I saw tiling or signal break-up, it was logged as “Int” for intermittent. And if the station didn’t come in at all, or only briefly, it was pushed to the “No” column.

After testing the bow tie, I repeated this procedure for each review antenna. The Curve antenna used its own support in the same test location, but all other antennas were attached with masking tape to a cardboard box to hold them in place in the “sweet spot.” Not elegant, but effective. (I didn’t remove the adhesive from the ClearStream Eclipse.)

This was about as fair as I could make the test. No antenna was positioned in a more favorable location than any other antenna – I just picked a spot, attached or stood up each antenna, connected it, and tried to watch TV stations, just like the average person would at home. Except they wouldn’t have had the advantage of an analyzer to find the best place to set up.

THE RESULTS

After logging plenty of transport streams, switching through channels, and grabbing analyzer screens, I came up with the results shown in Table 1. Depending on where you live in the metro Philadelphia area, there are 16 to 18 separate digital TV stations that can be received indoors. Three of them are in the Allentown/Bethlehem area, and one (WNJT) is in Trenton, NJ.

Amazingly, I found 11 stations that were consistently strong with most models – not all – and decided to use those for my test: WPVI-6 (in the no-man’s land of low-band VHF), WBPH-9 and WHYY-12, WPHL-17, KYW-26, WUVP-29, WCAU-34, WYBE-35, WLVT-39, WTXF-42, and WFMZ-46. WBPH-9, WLVT-39, and WFMZ-46 are all up in Allentown, and the rest of the signals come off the Roxborough towers. (Note that the channel numbers given are for each station’s physical (RF) channel, NOT their virtual channel. For example, KYW uses channel 3, while WTXF uses channel 29 and WFMZ uses channel 69. )

Table 1. Each antenna was tested with 11 different TV stations. VHF stations are listed in yellow, while UHF stations are listed in green.

Table 1. Each antenna was tested with 11 different TV stations. VHF stations are listed in yellow, while UHF stations are listed in green.

A few other stations popped up briefly during scans, but none of the antennas could pull any of these in consistently. I left them out of the test. Even the DVR+ was able to read and capture some elementary PSIP information for these stations, like their virtual channel table (VCT) and call sign. But capturing basic PSIP information doesn’t mean reception was successful.

The most surprising thing I learned from this round of tests was that the cheapest antenna – the bow tie – was also the most reliable. This design was really intended for reception of UHF stations and was intended to clip on to an extended rabbit ear. Yet, it pulled in ten of the eleven test stations without a hitch, having trouble only with WPVI on channel 6. That’s not a surprise at all, given how inefficient a bow tie would be at 86 MHz! (And it was only $3.99!)

WPVI's signal on channel 6 (center of display) was all but nonexistent on the Metro...

WPVI’s signal on channel 6 (center of display) was all but nonexistent on the Metro…

...as well as the Mohu Curve...

…as well as the Mohu Curve…

..and Winegard's FlatWave Amped.

..and Winegard’s FlatWave Amped.

There was a two-way tie for 2nd place between the Leaf 50 and FlatWave Amped. Again, not a surprise – both of these antennas have fundamentally good designs based on collinear elements, and their built-in preamplifiers raised signal levels sufficiently to provide a strong signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio. That’s critical for DTV reception, especially with multipath! The Achilles Heel for both antennas was VHF reception; specifically, WPVI-6 and WBPH-9. Channel 12 locked up beautifully as did all of the UHF stations.

The Leaf Metro, which physically resembles a bow tie, came in third with eight stations received successfully and three intermittently. Oddly, those three stations were WBPH-9, WUVP-29, and WTXF-42; it wasn’t an either/or VHF/UHF thing. Maybe some more futzing around with antenna placement would have cleaned things up. But you can’t complain for $30 with this model.

The ClearStream Eclipse and the RCA ANT1050 were both disappointments. Each antenna only pulled in seven solid signals, all in the UHF band. Channel 6 was a no-show on the ANT1050 and troublesome on the Eclipse, and vice-versa for channel 9. The Eclipse, even with an amplifier, couldn’t handle channel 12, but the ANT1050 was happy with it. However, the ANT1050 couldn’t lock up WCAU’s NBC signal on channel 34 (ironic, considering what was once RCA used to own what was once NBC!).

Here's a view of the UHF spectrum from channel 14 through 51, as captured with the ClearStream Eclipse.

Here’s a view of the UHF spectrum from channel 14 through 51, as captured with the ClearStream Eclipse.

The same spectrum, as seen through the FlatWave Amped.

The same spectrum, as seen through the FlatWave Amped.

And once more with the Leaf 50 (Ultimate). Not much difference between the three - at least what meets the eye...

And once more with the Leaf 50 (Ultimate). With UHF stations, this antenna had an 8 – 10 dB edge over the FlatWave and 3-4 dB over the Eclipse.

The Mohu Curve, bringing up the rear, was to be truthful kind of a flop. It only snagged five stations successfully – two on VHF and three on UHF – while passing on some easy, strong channels like WPHL-17 and WCAU-34. It also had trouble with WPVI’s broadcast on channel 6.

Again, it might take some futzing around to improve reception with this model, which is probably better used within a 10-to-15-mile-radius around the TV towers and not 15+ miles away. This isn’t the first time I’ve tested a decorative or camouflaged antenna – RCA had a curved picture frame model about ten years ago – and they usually come up short for some odd reason.

CONCLUSIONS: ANTENNAS

OK, everyone can stop nagging me now. I tested every antenna I could find, save for an Australian model that must have come in some time ago and had a PAL-type RF connector for which I had no appropriate adapter. Most of these antennas deliver the goods: I’ve always been a big fan of the basic Mohu Leaf design, despite its lack of gain at VHF frequencies. It’s unobtrusive and works very well.

Winegard’s FlatWave, the answer to the Leaf, also pulls its weight. Both it and the Leaf scored highly in my last test of indoor antennas in March of 2013. (Wow, was it REALLY that long ago?) And things only got better with the amplified versions of each model. I didn’t see a significant degradation of the noise floor here when they were switched on (< 2 dB) and they made a difference on the weaker signals. Use either of these if you are 15 – 30 miles out from the TV transmitters and have a reasonably clear reception path, i.e. maybe a small hill or some buildings in the way.

The ClearStream Eclipse amplifier clearly has some noise issues in the high VHF band (and possible spurious emissions).

The ClearStream Eclipse amplifier clearly has some noise issues in the high VHF band (and possible spurious emissions).

In contrast, Mohu's Leaf 50 is clean as a whistle from channels 7 through 13.

In contrast, Mohu’s Leaf 50 is clean as a whistle from channels 7 through 13.

The Metro has everything – good performance in a small, inexpensive package. I’d recommend this one for city dwellers, and you shouldn’t need any additional amplification. Closer to the transmitter, it should pick up low-band VHF stations nicely, but since there are only about 45 of them in the entire country, that’s not a big issue for the average user.

I can’t recommend any of the last three models, given how many strong stations they couldn’t pull in. The Curve is best used by city dwellers or close-in suburbs, but only if you want to make a fashion statement. Otherwise, go with the Metro and stick it on the wall or in a window. The ANT1050 is certainly cheap, but missed too many easy stations. And the Eclipse is clearly challenged with low-band and high-band VHF reception.

Still, isn’t it amazing how well the bow tie antenna worked? If you can’t find one at a flea market or surplus store, you can make your own easily enough – there are several Web sites that show you how to do it. And your cash outlay will be minimal. Gosh, $3.99 won’t even buy you a tall coffee at Starbucks these days…

CONCLUSIONS: CHANNEL MASTER DVR+

This product isn’t getting as much attention as it should. The super-flat DVR+ (not much thicker than a Leaf or FlatWave) has a full ATSC receiver and dual DVRs. It uses the program guide transmitted by each digital TV station to show you what’s on and to set up recordings.

Two accessory USB ports are provided for a Wi-Fi adapter and external storage (internal storage of 16 GB amounts to only about 2 hours of recording). There’s also an RJ-45 port for wired Ethernet connections, helpful when your box does a software update. The connection to your TV is through HDMI with embedded audio, and a separate optical port is provided for AV receivers.

Channel Master's DVR+ has such a low profile that you'll probably overlook it at first glance.

Channel Master’s DVR+ has such a low profile that you’ll probably overlook it at first glance.

In speed tests, the LG TV was a lot faster at scanning for active channels. But the DVR+ held its own with weak or fluctuating signals.

In speed tests, the LG TV was a lot faster at scanning for active channels. But the DVR+ held its own with weak or fluctuating signals.

The DVR+ isn’t nearly as fast at scanning for channels as the LG 47” TV I have in the same room, but it eventually finds them all. The receiver locks up quickly on clean VSB signals, making it a perfect receiver for my antenna tests. CM has also included direct connections to Vudu and Pandora through their program guide (powered by Rovi!), although Netflix probably would have been a wise addition considering their streaming video market dominance.

I’ve used the DVR+ to record blocks of CBS programs whose schedules are thrown out of whack by late-starting Sunday NFL games that end somewhere in the vicinity of 8 PM EST, and its multi-speed fast-forward/reverse search works quite well, even if it doesn’t have the tactile feedback of a TiVo DVR. Of course, the DVR+ is a LOT cheaper at $250 and there’s no monthly fee for program guide information, as it comes automatically from each TV station.

Given the paucity of conventional set-top boxes for off-air reception, this is one of your better choices and sure beats watching HDTV on your phone, tablet, or computer. Let’s face it; Tom Brady’s Patriots vs. Payton Manning’s Broncos is a lot more compelling on a big screen TV than an iPad!

See you next time I get a pile of antennas…

Editor’s note: Channel Master also offers a 1 TB version of the DVR+ for $399.

Useful Gadgets: Mohu Sky Outdoor TV Antenna

Depending on which media outlets you follow, “cutting the cord” is a fast-growing phenomenon. Or maybe it isn’t. Or maybe it’s a short-term threat to the bottom line of pay TV. Or perhaps it’s a long-term threat.

We do know this: Pay TV subscription rates have increased astronomically in the past ten years. An increasing number of subscribers are bellyaching about paying for channels they don’t watch. Some have even gone so far as to “cut the cord” and drop pay TV channel packages altogether; opting for Internet streaming and in some cases, free over-the-air TV broadcasts.

If you live in a major TV market, chances are there are plenty of free OTA channels you can pull in. Since every television sold since 2006 must include a digital TV tuner for these broadcasts, all you need is some sort of antenna to receive those signals.

And you may be surprised by how many channels there are. If you live in the Los Angeles basin, there are no less than 27 different digital TV broadcast channels carrying over 130 minor (sub) channels of programming! That’s more than I have in my cable TV package, although I’ll grant that I wouldn’t watch many of them.

But at least I don’t have to pay for channels I don’t watch. And that’s the appeal of free OTA TV, combined with on-demand streaming of movies and TV shows from outlets such as Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and Vudu. All you are paying for is a fast Internet connection.

Here's Mohu's Sky antenna, jury-rigged to a ten-foot mast and ready for testing.

Here’s Mohu’s Sky antenna, jury-rigged to a ten-foot mast and ready for testing.

REACH FOR THE SKY

In the past, I’ve tested a raft of indoor TV antennas from Mohu, Walltenna, Winegard, Antennas Direct, and Northvu. In my most recent test, I also included an indoor test of Mohu’s Sky amplified TV antenna ($169.99, available from Mohu, Amazon, and other online retailers). While it did a pretty good job, this product is intended for true outdoor use and won’t replace a flat, wall-mount antenna.

So, I freed up some time to set up the Sky on my rear deck and really cut it loose. The Sky resembles an “x” dipole, or a crossed dipole antenna. It’s housed in solid plastic and comes with a “J” arm support for and mounting plate for attaching to a roof or eave. The Sky measures 21” x 9” x 1” and is supplied with a 30-foot-long coaxial cable. There’s also an active amplifier inside the Sky, powered by an inline USB-style transformer that mounts at your TV.

You don’t have to use the supplied cable – you can use any cable you want, and I suggest sticking with a decent quality run of RG-6U cable from antenna to TV to keep signal attenuation to a minimum. The phantom power supply will work with really long cable runs (I tried it with 100’ of coax, no problem), and you can also mount the power supply in your basement or attic and split the incoming signal to feed two or more televisions.

Antennas Direct's ClearStream 1 came out of storage for the competition...

Antennas Direct’s ClearStream 1 came out of storage for the competition…

...as did the ClearStream 2, tested on this site a few years ago.

…as did the ClearStream 2, tested on this site a few years ago.

 

Channel Master's 4221 4-bay colinear UHF antenna uses 60-year-old technology - and still works like a charm.

Channel Master’s 4221 4-bay colinear UHF antenna uses 60-year-old technology – and still works like a charm.

For comparisons, I went into my “aluminum archive” and pulled out a ClearStream 1 (single loop antenna) and ClearStream 2 (dual loop antenna), both sold by Antennas Direct, and a Channel Master 4221 four-bay “x” dipole antenna. To level the playing field, I added an external “off brand” amplifier with the ClearStream and CM antennas. This amplifier has about the same gain figure (15 dB) as the Sky model. (You can’t use the Sky antenna without its amplifier switched on.)

THE TEST

For my tests, I procured a pair of 5’ steel masts from Radio Shack and supported them with a Winegard tripod mount, held in place by cinder blocks. The actual outdoor reception test was simple. I attached each antenna to the top of the 10’ mast and rotated it to aim south-southwest toward Philadelphia (position “A” in the results).

I scanned for active channels using my Hauppauge Aero-M USB DTV tuner stick, and for every channel I detected, I then scanned for Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP data). If I was able to read it and identify the channel, I looked at the actual MPEG transport stream using TS Reader (indicated dropped packets and transmission errors) and finally verified that I had 60 – 90 seconds of clean video and audio with no dropout.

Here's my test rig, with an AVCOM spectrum analyzer and Hauppauge Aero-M connected to my Toshiba latop for reception and measurements.

Here’s my test rig, with an AVCOM spectrum analyzer and Hauppauge Aero-M connected to my Toshiba latop for reception and measurements.

Although this housing is lettered just like the Mohu Bolt amplifier, it's actually a phantom power supply for the Sky's internal preamp.

Although this housing is lettered just like the Mohu Bolt amplifier, it’s actually a phantom power supply for the Sky’s internal preamp.

 

This process was repeated after I swung the antennas to the north-northwest, towards Allentown, PA. I expected that in some cases, I’d be able to receive stations from both markets regardless of the antenna position. That’s because these antennas are sold as somewhat omnidirectional or “non-directional.” The manufacturer expects you can install the antenna outdoors as high as practical, and you shouldn’t have to worry about its orientation (North? South? West?).

In reality, all of the antennas I tested are somewhat directional, as you’ll see from my tests. So I suggest picking up a small antenna rotor, which is easy to find at Radio Shack and other online stores. Rotors come in real handy if the TV stations in your market have towers scattered all around the city. (Pittsburgh and Atlanta come to mind here.)

I also took a look at the actual 8VSB carrier waveforms using an AVCOM PSA-2500C spectrum analyzer, mostly to see how much multipath “tilt” was present in the signal. I’ve included a few of those screen grabs here to show the relative signal strength of multiple TV transmitters in the UHF band as received by each antenna.

At my location, the pickings on VHF are slim. WPVI broadcasts a towering signal on channel 6 in Roxborough, PA, while WHYY has a potent carrier on channel 12. In Allentown, WBPH is a strong beacon on channel 9. And that’s about it – the rest of the stations are found on the UHF band.

Of that group, several stations usually stand out in my tests. WPHL is very strong on channel 17, as is KYW on channel 26. (I can receive KYW in my basement, and I’m 22 miles away from the transmitter!) WCAU is pretty reliable on channel 34, as is WLVT on channel 39. And WFMZ in Allentown is broadcasting with over one million watts ERP on channel 46, meaning I can usually pull them in with a paper clip.

I should point out here that the vast majority of indoor TV antennas work pretty well at UHF frequencies, but are electrically too small to pull in many high-band VHF channels. They just can’t approach resonance and have gain. The same thing applies to outdoor antennas – a solid performer at UHF frequencies may have little or no gain on high-band VHF channels.

Here's a spectral view of channels 6 through 13, as received through the Sky antenna.

Here’s a spectral view of channels 6 through 13, as received through the Sky antenna.

 

And here's how channels 6 through 13 look like as received with the ClearStream 1.

And here’s how channels 6 through 13 look like as received with the ClearStream 1. Note that WPVI’s signal on channel 6 (about 85 MHz) is not receivable on the CS-1, but comes in like gangbusters on the Sky (above).

That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to receive any VHF channels. If the signal strength is there, your smaller antenna may couple enough energy anyway to enable reception. But keep in mind that while a quarter-wavelength antenna for UHF reception might only be five inches long, a quarter-wave antenna for pulling in channel 7 needs to be about 16 inches long to achieve resonance.

The moral of the story is that all of the test antennas are physically the right size for pulling in UHF channels. They may not work quite as well for high-band (175 – 216 MHz) VHF channels, and I don’t expect they’d work at all with low-band (54 – 87 MHz) VHF reception. It all depends on the distance from your reception location to the transmitter.

THE RESULTS

Table 1 shows how all of the antennas fared. In the “A” position, the Sky gave a good accounting of itself, pulling in all three of the Philly and Allentown high-band VHF broadcasts. It also snagged seven of the ten strongest UHF stations coming from both markets. While Antennas Direct’s ClearStream 1 couldn’t find WPVI on channel 6 (that resonance thing, again), it did even better by pulling in the remaining two VHF signals and all ten of the UHF stations.

 

Table 1 - Results of the outdoor reception tests. Stations received successfully are indicated in green text.

Table 1 – Results of the outdoor reception tests. Stations received successfully are indicated in green text.

 

Oddly, the ClearStream 2 picked up one VHF channel, but dropped the UHF signal from WYBE-35, giving it a score of 3 VHF and 9 UHF channels. And the venerable Channel Master 4221 four-bay collinear antenna nearly matched it, missing only WYBE and WPVI-6. (Again, this antenna has no gain at lower frequencies.)

Turning the antennas northwest to favor Allentown (position “B”) really quieted things down. The playing field was almost level across all antennas with the Sky locating 2 VHF and 2 UHF stations, the ClearStream 1 digging out one additional UHF station, the Clear Stream 2 adding one more UHF station, and the 4221 spotting one VHF and three UHF stations.

Here's a spectral view of all UHF channels as received with the Sky antenna. Compare it to...

Here’s a spectral view of all UHF channels as received with the Sky antenna. Compare it to…

...all UHF channels received with the ClearStream 1...

…all UHF channels received with the ClearStream 1…

...all UHF channels as received with the ClearStream 2...

…all UHF channels as received with the ClearStream 2…

...and all UHF channels received using the Channel Master 4221.

…and all UHF channels received using the Channel Master 4221. All antennas were in position “A” for these readings.

CONCLUSION

Mohu’s Sky antenna is a strong performer. It did surprisingly well in my earlier indoor antenna tests, but it’s much happier in free space with plenty of oxygen flowing around it. The antenna does exhibit a directional characteristic, as did the three other antennas in this test. But it was able to handle both VHF and UHF signals with aplomb, although its UHF performance wasn’t quite as good as the ClearStream 1 and 2 loop antennas with external amplifiers.

 

Mohu Sky Outdoor VHF/UHF TV Antenna

MSRP: $169.99

Sold by Greenwave Scientific

www.gomohu.com

 

Also available from other online retailers.

Once More, Back to the – Window??

Since I launched this Web site ten years ago, I’ve conducted numerous tests of outdoor and indoor TV antennas to see which ones really performed, and which ones were just “aluminum snake oil.” The problem with these tests is that, as soon as I complete one and write it up, I hear from yet another company who missed the boat and wants their time in the sun.

That’s the motivation for this round of tests, which included some previously-tested models and a few newcomers. It’s taken me a few months to schedule this test and round up all of the review models, but the good news is that every one of these antennas is currently offered for sale; some from multiple online retail outlets.

WHY INDOOR TV?

If you subscribe to pay TV services (as I do), you’ve surely noticed two things. (1) The monthly cost of your channel services has gone up over the past decade at a rate far in excess of ordinary inflation, and (2) you probably don’t watch more than 10 to 15 channels anyway on a regular basis.

Now, couple those observations with the expanding universe of Web-based (“over the top”) video channels, including the ever-popular YouTube, Hulu and Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Prime, and assorted network-based streaming sites. Add a Roku box, Apple TV, Boxee, or any of a number of OTT receiving solutions; drop the TV channel bundle from your pay TV subscription, and you’ve probably cut your monthly cost by 50%. (This assumes you’re keeping broadband service.)

Good thing I don't do this on a regular basis. They'd never get any work done!

Good thing for the gang at Turner Engineering that I don’t test indoor antennas on a regular basis. They’d never get any work done!

 

All well and good, except that streaming video services are very much dependent on available bandwidth. Watching Modern Family or The Avengers at 2 PM when Internet traffic is light is a completely different experience at 10 PM, when it seems that everyone and their brother is hogging bandwidth.

While there’s not much you or I can do about that problem (except perhaps subscribe to FiOS), you can watch HD broadcast network channels for free all over the U.S.A. And if you live near an urban area, you may have multiple channels you can pull in, using that little “F” connector on the back of your LCD or plasma flat screen.

 

The "mighty mite" - a Radio Shack $4 UHF bow tie.

The “mighty mite” – a Radio Shack $4 UHF bow tie.

NorthVu's NV20 Pro firmly attached (we hoped) to the window. Don't try this at home...

NorthVu’s NV20 Pro, firmly attached (we hoped) to the window. Don’t try this at home…

 

All you need to watch these channels is some sort of antenna. While outdoor antennas always work best, you may live in an apartment or condo where going that route is problematic for cosmetic or legal reasons (even though you do have the right to install an outdoor antenna on property that is yours exclusively, but I won’t get into that now).

The fact is; indoor TV reception has actually gotten easier and better. Yes, I remember the early days of digital TV reception, which involved more luck and prayer than anything else. But we’ve come way past those trial-and-error exercises, and it’s now much easier to pull in local digital TV signals indoors.

All you need is a TV antenna that meets the following criteria: It is resonant or close to resonant at the desired frequencies of reception; can be installed easily on a wall, window, or some other surface suitable for mounting, and is a true plug-and-play design. You just screw on the antenna cable to your TV, go into the appropriate set-up and channel menus, and scan for active channels.

 

It's a little bit easier to attach Winegard's FlatWave with masking tape...

It’s a little bit easier to attach Winegard’s FlatWave with masking tape…

...as it is to attach the Mohu Leaf. Maybe transparent tape would look nicer?

…as it is to attach the Mohu Leaf. Maybe transparent tape would look nicer?

 

ANYTHING GOOD ON TONIGHT?

If you haven’t tried indoor TV reception yet, you may be surprised just how many channels you can pull in. For many folks living in the Los Angeles basin who have a clear shot toward Mt. Wilson, that could mean as many as 27 major DTV channels with over 130 total sub-channels of programming. Heck, that’s a mini cable system into itself!

I live in the Philadelphia metro market, and can consistently receive 15 major DTV channels with over 30 sub-channels of programming. That’s using a modest dual-band yagi mounted at the base of my chimney, along with a similar antenna installed in my attic. And my dual-band UHF/VHF yagi antennas that sit atop a rotor and 5’ of mast on my roof can pull in another 8-10 DTV stations from New York City, which is about 65 miles distant.

These antenna systems supplement my Comcast cable service, which was cut off during Hurricane Sandy for the better part of a week by a 100-year-old oak tree that chopped the cable and telephone lines in half. Using an inverter (since replaced by a generator), I could still watch local news and weather from all of the locations just mentioned.

I’m a little too far away from the Philly TV towers in Roxborough to depend on indoor antennas, which is why I went the rooftop/attic route. But your location may be closer; in which case one of the models tested in this review could be right for you.

Here's the Leaf Ultimate with inline preamp (near bottom of photo) percolating nicely.

Here’s the Leaf Ultimate with inline preamp (near bottom of photo) percolating nicely.

Yes, we actually got a ClearStream Micron XG to stay attached to the test window! (Special formulation for the masking tape?)

Yes, we actually got a ClearStream Micron XG to stay attached to the test window! (Special formulation for the masking tape?)

 

As a general rule of thumb, homes and apartments as far away as ten miles from a TV station should be able to pull in the signal with an unamplified antenna. If the TV tower is located at a high altitude, as is the case in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Portland (mountains) and New York City and Chicago (skyscrapers), that indoor reception distance can increase by 50% or more.

However, there are locations where indoor DTV reception is borderline reliable or problematic. In those cases, an amplified antenna may be a better choice, as digital signals require a minimum threshold above background noise to be received correctly. For the ATSC system used in this country, the “laboratory” threshold is about 15 dB. In real life with signal echoes and fading, it’s more like 20 dB.

There are caveats with amplified antennas. First, not all amplifiers are created equal! Your particular amplifier may have lots of gain, but strong, nearby out-of-band signals can overload it and create more problems than it is fixing.

Second, amplifiers are noisy, and some more noisy than others. It does you no good to add an amplifier if it increases background noise (or as some call it, the noise floor) along with the signal. So a poorly-designed amplifier can actually make difficult TV reception worse.

Here's what the UHF TV spectrum looks like on the bow tie antenna...

Here’s what the UHF TV spectrum looks like on the bow tie antenna…

...and here's what it looks like on the NorthVu NV20 Pro.

…and here’s what it looks like on the NorthVu NV20 Pro. RF carriers from channels 18, 29, and 51 are anywhere from 3 dB to 9 dB weaker than on the bow tie, while channels 33 and 40 are barely there.

 

THE COMPETITORS – PASSIVE DIVISION

I selected nine different antennas for this latest round. Five were unamplified, and four had some sort of internal or external amplification. One of the amplified antennas (Mohu’s Sky) is actually intended for outdoor use, but I figured I’d see just how well it performed by a window anyway. (The Sky will be part of an outdoor antenna test soon.)

To kick things off, I needed a reference indoor antenna. What better choice than the classic UHF bow tie, which Radio Shack used to sell for all of $4.00? Although The Shack has since dropped this antenna from its catalog, you can still find them online. Summit Source has one made by Steren for all of $2.49.

Next up is the NorthVu NV20 Pro, a VHF/UHF panel antenna that claims to use a fractal-based design to improve resonance and performance. NorthVu is a Canadian company and its Web site promotes the use of free digital TV to cut costs of cable. A number of retailers carry it (including Amazon) and it will set you back about $60, plus shipping.

Batting in the #3 spot is the WallTenna, which I’ve tested previously. This flexible, super-flat antenna is intended for UHF reception only, although it might pull in VHF stations if the transmitter is close by.  At present, WallTenna is sold direct through the company’s Web site for $35.

Winegard’s FlatWave flexible panel antenna was another solid performer from previous tests, so it deserved another go-around. You can find it at numerous online sites and also in Costco, but prices are all over the place, ranging from $20 to $36. Shop carefully!

No test of indoor antennas would be complete without Greenwave Scientific’s Mohu Leaf, a strong performer in previous antenna tests. You can find it at numerous online and brick-and-mortar retailers (Sears, B&H, Amazon, Sam’s Club, J&R) for$40. You can also buy it direct from Greenwave.

 

Here's what WMBC-18 looks like with the WallTenna.

Here’s what WMBC-18 looks like with the WallTenna.

And here's what WMBC-18 looks like as received by the bow tie.

And here’s what WMBC-18 looks like as received by the bow tie. Not much difference!

 

WNJM-51, as received on the FlatWave antenna...

WNJM-51, as received on the FlatWave antenna…

...and the same station, as received by the NorthVu NV20 Pro.

…and the same station, as received by the NorthVu NV20 Pro.

 

THE COMPETITORS – AMPLIFIED DIVISION

Four more antennas rounded out the test, and all of them use active electronics to boost signal levels. NorthVu sent along the NV20 Pro Amplified, which looks exactly like the NV20 Pro except that it has a built-in power supply with AC cord. It’s currently selling for about $90, and Amazon has it.

Antennas Direct’s ClearStream Micron XG antenna is a panel design that comes in several flavors – (1) bare bones, (2) with a variable multi-step inline amplifier, (3) with a separate reflector panel, and (4) with both options together. Figure $80 for the basic panel with amplifier and $130 for the loaded system (which I tested). Oddly, the AT Web site currently lists a lower price for the basic panel antenna and amplifier ($79.99) than for the antenna alone ($89.99)!

The Mohu Leaf Ultimate is basically a Leaf antenna with an outboard preamplifier. Otherwise, it looks identical to the passive Leaf antennas, and you can find it at the same retail outlets for $90. (Sam’s Club had it for $55 at the time I wrote this.)

Finally, Mohu’s Leaf Sky antenna isn’t really an indoor design, but it’s small enough that I thought it would be fun to include it in this test. You may recall some of the bar-style VHF/UHF antennas that were popular a number of years back at the start of the digital TV transition: These could be installed on a roof or mounted on inside or outside walls. I figured it was worth seeing how well the Sky did on a very large window with minimal amounts of metal nearby to de-tune its pattern.

I think we reached the practical load limit for 1"-wide masking tape during this test!

I think we reached the practical load limit for 1″-wide masking tape during this test!

 

They may be hard to see, but there are two 8VSB carriers in there - WABC-7 (left) and WNJB-8 (right). There's just too much noise and not enough carrier-to-noise separation to pull in these signals with the ClearStream Micron XG.

They may be hard to see, but there are two 8VSB carriers in there – WABC-7 (left) and WNJB-8 (right). There’s just too much noise and not enough carrier-to-noise separation to pull in these signals with the ClearStream Micron.

The Leaf Ultimate couldn't do anything to help WABC's signal, but it did pull in WNJB-8 nicely (that hill just to the right of screen center).

The Leaf Ultimate couldn’t do anything to help WABC’s signal, but it did pull in WNJB-8 nicely (that hill just to the right of screen center).

THE TEST

For consistency, I decided to head back to the scene of my early DTV converter box and antenna tests – Turner Engineering, in Mountain Lakes, NJ. The Turner building is located on a bit of a rise with a decent view to the east, northeast, and southeast; good enough to pull in numerous DTV stations from the Empire State Building in New York City, as well as various DTV stations in northern New Jersey.

John Turner, president of the company and a life-long “tinkerer,” has always been a willing and eager accomplice in these tests, so we set up an area in his front office where we could attach each antenna to a window using copious amounts of masking tape (non-inductive!).

I was also able to find some space to set up the test gear, which included an AVCOM PSA-2500C spectrum analyzer, my Toshiba laptop, Hauppauge’s Aero-M USB stick DTV receiver, and Turner’s in-house DTV receiver system (a Samsung DTB-H260F ATSC set-top box, no longer available, and the legendary Princeton AF3.0HD 28-inch HD CRT monitor that was quite popular in the late 1990s.

The test was simple. After each antenna was attached to the window (not an easy task with some of the heavier models), I recorded the spectral views of various DTV channels from 7 (WABC-DT) through 51 (WNJM-DT). I also recorded wide views of the UHF TV spectrum from channels 14 through 51, and selected views of other high-band VHF DTV stations.

The final part of the test involved verifying reception without any dropouts or “hits” for at least 30 a minute. I also recorded MPEG transport streams from various stations to verify the bit error rate (BER) was indeed low.

If I didn’t see any hits and recorded a clean MPEG stream, the test antenna was rated OK for that channel. If the signal locked up even briefly or I saw too many dropped bits in the MPEG stream, it received an INT grade. If the station’s PSIP (Program and System Information Protocol) was detected by the Samsung and Hauppauge receivers, but the receiver couldn’t tune it in, the antenna received a NO grade for that channel.

 

Here's a view of the UHF TV spectrum as "seen" by the NorthVu NV20 Pro with amplifier.

Here’s a view of the UHF TV spectrum as “seen” by the NorthVu NV20 Pro with amplifier.

Here's a view of the same channels from the Leaf Ultimate.

Here’s a view of the same channels from the Leaf Ultimate. WNJM-51 (far right) is quite a bit stronger through the NV20 Pro, but the Leaf Ultimate is grabbing a much stronger signal from WMBC-18 (left).

 

THE RESULTS

Table 1 shows how each antenna fared for 11 different channels. One (WNJB) was on channel 8 in the Warren Hills of New Jersey, while the remaining ten channels  were all UHF and came from Empire and selected locations in New Jersey. The two strongest were WMBC-18 (Montclair NJ) and WNJM-51 (also Montclair), less than 11 miles away.

In addition to the channels listed, I also scanned for WABC-7 (previously received in tests at this location), WPIX-11, WNET-13, WNYE-25, and WNJU-36. However, none of the antennas were able to successfully pull in these stations aside from an intermittent signal here and there, so I dropped them from the test results.

The “No Amplifier” tests were surprisingly competitive, although I didn’t expect the cheapest antenna to be the best performer. But that’s how it played out as the UHF bow tie earned nine YES scores, one INT, and one NO. It was the only antenna to pull in WNYW’s signal on channel 44, a notoriously tough catch at this indoor location.

The WallTenna, Winegard’s FlatWave, and the Mohu Leaf all tied for second place with seven YES tallies, but the WallTenna and Leaf edged ahead by pulling in WNBC’s signal on channel 28 somewhat cleanly whereas the FlatWave couldn’t lock it up.

NorthVu’s NV20 Pro was the biggest disappointment in this test. It only garnered four YES scores against seven NO tallies. I would have expected a lot better, based on the preliminary specifications and information I received from NorthVu’s product management folks.

Table 1 - comparison of passive (top) and amplified (bottom) indoor antenna performance.

Table 1 – comparison of passive (top) and amplified (bottom) indoor antenna performance.

 

Intriguingly, the NV20 Pro is also about the same size as the late, lamented Kowatec CS102; one of the best indoor UHF antennas I’ve ever tested. (Hey, antenna manufacturers! Maybe one of you can scoop up the rights to the CS-102 and resurrect it?)

Things were a bit more exciting in the amplified antenna competition. Mohu clearly had the upper hand here with their Leaf Ultimate product, as it gathered up ten solid YES scores and a solitary INT (for WNYW, of course!) The new Sky product acquitted itself well as an indoor antenna, also bagging ten YES scores and a single NO (from guess who?).

The ClearStream Micron XG (without the reflector, which no other antenna offered or used) came in behind these two with seven YES and three NO tallies, plus a single INT from our friends on channel 44. Once again, NorthVu brought up the rear with their NV20 Pro Amplified, which fared only slightly better than the basic NV20. It scored five YES, three INT, and three NO tallies.

 

We checked for reception through all antennas using this vintage Princeton AF3.0HD CRT monitor. Remember CRT monitors?

We checked for reception through all antennas using this vintage Princeton AF3.0HD CRT monitor. Remember CRT monitors?

This is what the ClearStream Micron XG preamp looks like. Notice the four operating modes, selectable with a small tactile pushbutton.

This is what the ClearStream Micron XG preamp looks like. Notice the four operating modes, selectable with a small tactile pushbutton.

 

CONCLUSIONS

It says a lot that the least-expensive and simplest unamplified antenna design took on all comers and won. It also implies that the particular location where the antennas were mounted just seemed to favor the bow tie this time around (we didn’t test it with an amplifier). These tests were conducted in March with no foliage on nearby trees, whereas my last test was in late July of last year with trees fully leafed out. Even so, the bow tie did pull in WNYW-44 solid as a rock for as long as we chose to watch, something no other passive or amplified antenna could do.

All of the antennas performed equally well at the low end of the UHF band (channel 18) as they did at the high end (channel 51). Five of them were able to haul in channel 8 (about 180 MHz) reliably, which is an impressive feat for such small antennas that expect to work a lot better at UHF frequencies.

Ironically, only two amplified antennas could pull in WWOR on channel 38, something the bow tie did with relative ease. On channel 30 (WFUT), the NorthVu NV20 Pro was the only antenna that couldn’t hook up to the signal. A similar situation occurred with ION-31, not receivable on any of the passive antennas, but plenty strong with the Leaf Sky, Leaf Ultimate, and ClearStream Micron XG. Once again, the NV20 Pro Amplified just couldn’t pull it off.

I should mention that the ClearStream Micron XG’s preamplifier was set to a maximum of 15. Any higher, and the noise floor was degraded, something I could easily see on the spectrum analyzer. In general, I like to keep amplifiers at about 10 dB maximum to guard against this problem – too much gain creates all kinds of reception issues, and you only need to boost the signals up high enough to maintain the required carrier-to-noise ratio (CNR) for reliable digital TV reception.

The separate preamp supplied with Leaf’s Sky and Ultimate antennas is a good design, adding minimal noise while providing sufficient gain to pull signals out of the mud. I can’t say anything about the quality of the NV20 Pro’s amplifier as it is mounted internally, but in my tests it did not appear to add much noise to any of the received signals.

Based on these and previous tests, I’d give the WallTenna, FlatWave, and Leaf a thumbs-up. If you can find one, the bow tie is cheap enough to play around with and may fit the bill. (Hey, Starbucks coffee costs more and the thrill doesn’t last as long). I can’t recommend the NV20 Pro, though.

In the amplified crowd, the Leaf Ultimate and Sky both deliver solid performance. It is a testament to the design of the Sky that it worked so well indoors, but if you opt to use it this way, make sure you have a large window and keep it at least 2-3 feet away from any metal objects.

Antenna Direct’s ClearStream Micron XG is a decent performer, but expensive. I can tell you from a previous test that the reflector made little difference, but if that’s your cup of tea, position the antenna on a non-metallic surface (bookshelf, window ledge, etc.), aim it towards the TV transmitters when using the reflector assembly, and don’t run the preamp higher than the ‘15’ setting.

Most importantly, keep in mind that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get reliable indoor TV reception. My best performers in the passive category were all under $50, and some were under $40. Check TV reception sites first (TVFool.com is one of the best) to get an idea of how strong signals may be at your location before you buy.

Useful Gadgets: Optoma ML300 LED Projector

Back in June, during my annual Display Technology Trends on Super Tuesday at InfoComm in Las Vegas, I singled out two products that showed just how far technology has advanced in the past decade. The first was Nikon’s CoolPix 8200, a $250 point-and-shoot camera with 16 megapixels of resolution, 16x optical zoom, multi-zone focus, HDMI output, ISO speeds to 3200, and an amazingly compact form factor.

The other was Optoma’s ML300 LED projector, which I compared in performance to my late, lamented Sony VPH-D70 CRT projector. The latter – which was the centerpiece of my home theater until 2006 – could crank out about 170 – 200 lumens, had three 7” CRTs, weighed about 140 pounds, had a maximum resolution of 1280×720, and zero support for digital connections. (Oh, and it cost $12,000 new.)

Hard to believe this pipsqueak replaced a 140-pound CRT projector!

The ML300 was a perfect benchmark against the VPH-D70. It has a native resolution of 1280×800 pixels, using a single DLP imaging device. Like the Sony CRT projector, it is ‘lampless,’ relying on discrete red, green, and blue light-emitting diode chips to provide illumination.

But it weighs considerably less – 1.4 pounds, about the same as the Remote Commander keyboard remote that came with the VPH-D70. And it offers ‘instant on’ operation, with an estimated LED life of 20,000 hours to half-brightness. There’s no convergence required; no keystone correction (it’s automatic) to fool with, and the ML300 supports all the standard HD and SD video formats, plus a host of computer resolutions.

Significantly, it will set you back all of $499. I’m not sure I could have replaced the Remote Commander for that price!

Remember when cell phones were bigger than this?

 

With more projector manufacturers jumping on the ‘lamp free’ bandwagon at InfoComm, it’s a good time to take a closer look at one of these marvels. Right now, projectors are under assault by large, inexpensive LCD monitors and TVs, and one reason is the need to replace lamps – they’re not cheap, and stockpiled lamps can turn out to be defective months after their warranty runs out when you actually need them.

There are no such worries with LED (and laser) light engines. Yes, they eventually will croak – all electronics do. But the probability of them not lighting up after sitting idle for several months is very low. And, they’re more friendly to the environment (projector lamps contain salts of mercury, and that’s something we don’t need more of in our water and air!).

OUT OF THE BOX

Did I mention that the LM300 was tiny? You can hold it in the palm of your hand. (Actually, you can hold it for quite a while in the palm of your hand – it’s that light!) The housing measures all of 7.2” long by 4.4” deep and sits 1.8” tall. That would slip very nicely into my computer bag.

The lens is mounted off-center and is a varifocal type with a zoom ratio of 1.5:1. That means you need to place it about 15 feet away from a 10’ wide screen to fill the width. Projected images have a 100% plus offset, meaning they will sit above the top of the lens. The projector also has automatic digital keystone correction that you can override.

 

Here are the main inputs – VGA, HDMI, and composite video.

 

As far as connectivity goes, the ML300 comes with a 15-pin VGA input jack (just can’t kill off analog, can we?) that is compatible with resolutions from VGA to WXGA, a mini HDMI input for standard video resolutions to a maximum of 1920x1080p/60, and a micro USB connector for playing back JPEG images from a flash drive. There’s also a full-size USB port on the real panel.

You have to look real hard to find it, but yes, there is a composite video connection (can’t kill that off, either) through a micro 2.5mm breakout plug that also provides analog audio to RCA jacks. A mini (3.5mm) stereo audio jack is included to loop out audio from a PC or from the connected HDMI source.

One thing you will realize in short order is that normal VGA and HDMI cables will pull this projector all over the table. In fact, a VGA connection looks kind of ridiculous into the ML300 – the plug is enormous, compared to the I/O side panel. The Mini HDMI connection is more reasonable, but you may have some trouble finding this cable. (I bought a few through Amazon.com for the sum of $11.)

The supplied remote control is so small that you need to keep it in a secure place – it would be easy to lose. These remotes are commonly referred to as ‘credit card’ remotes, but in reality, they are about 2/3 the width.

 

And here’s what the rear panel looks like. The power switch is in the upper left corner.


REMOTE AND MENUS

Speaking of remotes…there aren’t a lot of buttons to play with on the ML300. Aside from the power button, you’ll find navigation buttons, direct links to the video, HDMI, and VGA inputs, a high-low power operation selector, a mute button, and a home button to take you to the top menu.

Here, you can select inputs, play video directly from a micro SD memory card, view JPEG photos, connect to an external laptop or PC for display through the USB connections, and select whether you want a wide or truncated color space. (LEDs can output tremendously saturated colors!)

The projector also has 2 GB of internal memory, on which you will find stored (ready for this?) the owner’s manual. Cool, eh? Between that memory and the USB and micro SD ports, you can load and immediately view JPEG and BMP files, plus Powerpoint, Word, Excel, and Acrobat documents. You can even connect via WiFi with an $30 accessory dongle to make a presentation.

You can also connect an iPhone, iPod, and iPad to the ML300 with an optional connectivity kit for really high-tech presentations. Again, you simply choose the appropriate input (WiFi or micro SD) and start presenting. I can’t imagine any input option that Optoma has forgotten.

I found the menu navigation a bit tricky. The remote has to be pointing at the right part of the projector, or it won’t respond. The projector’s top menu buttons are backlit, but don’t light up until you press one of them. And when you’ve made a selection, you have to confirm it with the ‘O’ button, or back out of a menu with the ‘X” button.

One continual problem I had was setting the truncated color gamut and having that setting stick. To do this, I had to hit the Home button (a little house) and go into the Display settings menu. It was easy enough to toggle to the smaller gamut, but the setting wouldn’t keep when I switched back to HDMI input.

I suspect that was because the extended display identification data (EDID) my computer was transmitting to the ML300 identified that it was operating in 32-bit more. That probably triggered the projector to use the extended gamut, which of course makes colors over-saturated when viewing video. But it is annoying that I couldn’t override the setting.

The only other image adjustment you can make is to gamma. By playing with this setting and the color gamut, you can achieve a more accurate representation of colors when playing back video. I should add that you can’t make any image adjustments when viewing an input.

PERFORMANCE

The ML300 is really a set it and forget it, ‘plug and play’ product that will generally give you great pictures. Just connect your source, turn it on, and present (or watch). But I thought it would be useful to measure some key parameters, such as gamma and color temperature.

But first, the brightness and contrast readings. I set the projector up in my theater and lit up a 92” Da-Lite Affinity screen, measuring 152 ANSI lumens in Film mode with the LEDs running at reduced power. That number jumped to 173 ANSI lumens in video mode and 198 ANSI lumens in Photo mode.

Cranking the LEDs to full power raised my brightness measurement to 232 ANSI lumens. That’s about 22% less than the Optoma specification. Contrast numbers were pretty good – not great – at 244:1 ANSI in low-brightness mode, with a peak reading of 342:1. 50/50 (white/black) contrast was logged at 313:1, and sequential black/white contrast measured 373:1.

Figure 1: Here’s the gamma curve for the HDMI input in film/video mode. It averages 2.13, which is a bit on the shallow side, and flattens out above 60 IRE.

 

Figure 2: The ML300’s color temperature is too high, but at least it’s consistent.

Figure 1 shows the standard gamma setting in film and video mode compared to PC mode. There’s not much of a difference, and the gamma is in the vicinity of 2.0 – 2.2 below 50 IRE. However, it becomes a straight line above 70 IRE and in PC mode, shows the slightest inclination to roll over and clip highlights.

Color temperature performance is a bit erratic, as seen in Figure 2.  You can’t set the color temperature manually, and it averages 7200 Kelvin to 7700 Kelvin in all input modes, depending on the gray level being shown. It would be nice if Optoma dialed the color temperature down about 100 degrees – it shouldn’t be hard to do with the LED light engine.

I will give this projector credit for being consistent. Figure 3 shows the RGB histogram film/video mode, and it is rock-steady. That means if Optoma could rebalance the color temperature to a more-palatable 6500K, it should stay right there from 0 to 100 IRE.

Figure 3: That’s a remarkably steady RGB histogram, even at low gray levels.

 

Now, about the wide color gamut: Figure 4 shows just how big it is, and that’s what LEDs deliver- saturated, intense colors that go far beyond the limited shades that can be shown in the BT.709 HDTV standard.

Some folks love these ‘deep’ colors. Well, they certainly do ‘pop’ off the screen, but flesh tones are exaggerated as a consequence and some colors are not accurate (greens in particular can shift in hue). While you can select the smaller gamut as seen in Figure 5, it seems to switch back to a wide gamut when you select your signal source, particularly if that source supports extended color bit depths. A manual override would be nice!

Figure 4: Got color? You betcha!

 

Figure 5: The ML300’s truncated color gamut is quite a bit closer to the BT.709 HDTV standard. Good luck selecting it, though.

PERFORMANCE

For Viewing PC content, the ML300 more than carries its weight. You’ll get the best image quality if you drive it at its native 1280×800 resolution, which just happens to be the native/preferred timing stored in the projector’s EDID. It’s also quite happy with 1280×720 in RGB mode. Otherwise, the remaining PC formats it supports are all 4:3.

The projector takes a few seconds to recognize, poll, and lock up to an HDMI signal. That’s because it’s reading EDID first and then looking for copy protection keys if your source is a Blu-ray player, DVD player, or set-top box. If you have a computer with a Blu-ray drive (like my Toshiba Satellite), it will look for keys there, too. In fact, the projector takes longer to establish an HDMI connection than it does to power up. Weird…

Video quality isn’t up to that of a home theater projector, but what can you expect for $500? A handful of projector manufacturers are dabbling in LED light engines and the ones I’ve seen that are accurate in terms of gamut, color temperature, and gamma are many times more expensive than the ML300.

Still, the video quality you get is serviceable, especially if you are playing back progressive-scan material. And let’s face it; you’re not likely to use this projector in a home theater, particularly since you can’t really calibrate it.

CONCLUSION

In terms of ease of use and connectivity options, the ML300 rocks the house. I can’t see any faster way to get a presentation up and running, and the doggone thing is so lightweight that you can place it just about anywhere. (Watch you don’t trip on the power block cable, though!) And with a maximum power draw of 90 watts in high output mode, it doesn’t get all that hot. (Nor does it get all that noisy at 36 dB!)

I’d like to see Optoma re-work the menu to speed up navigation and allow changes to gamma and color gamut without exiting the input menu. As far as the accessory cables go, come on guys – I found a ten-foot Mini HDMI cable on Amazon for about $11.  Be a pal and throw one in the box, will ya?

 

Optoma ML300 LED portable projector

SRP: $499

 

Available from:

Optoma USA

3178 Laurelview Ct.
Fremont, CA 94538
Tel: (510) 897-8600
Fax: (510) 897-8601

www.optomausa.com

Useful Gadgets: Indoor DTV Antennas – The Third Time’s The Charm

Earlier this year, I posted a couple of product reviews of indoor digital TV antennas. The first test, posted on April 6, concluded that there isn’t a heck of a lot of difference between a $5 bow tie and a $40 ‘flat’ antenna when it comes to VHF and UHF TV reception.

The second test, posted on May 29, gave one manufacturer a ‘do-over’ as their original product didn’t perform all that well and was judged to be defective. And that test also included a newcomer who didn’t make the original cut. (Believe it or not, both tests grew out of a more impromptu test in my house of a couple of panel antennas!)

Since the Round 2 results were posted, three things transpired. First, I became aware of yet another indoor DTV antenna, called the Clear Cast X1 and sold through Sunday newspaper inserts, magazines, and even on this Web site.

According to Clear Cast, “Advanced patent pending design of the X-1 digital antenna pulls in free over-the-air digital and HDTV broadcasts in your area so you can leave behind cable-only channels & expensive cable & satellite bills. Receive crystal clear digital picture on any digital TV in the house with NO monthly bill, easy install and setup plus NO waiting for the cable guy.” OK, I was intrigued enough to order one (they’re not cheap!)

Secondly, the PR firm that represents Antennas Direct – the company that shipped me a Clear Stream Micron XG for Round 2 testing – inquired why I hadn’t tested the accessory reflector with the antenna. (Simple: As Steve Martin used to say, “I forgot!”)

Finally, the Mohu Leaf Plus that self-destructed in Round 2 had been replaced and was ready for another go. (The amplifier failed, a problem Mohu was aware of and corrected in subsequent production.)

So it was clearly time for one last trek to Mountain Lakes, NJ to put all of the antennas from Round 1 and Round 2 through one more workout. I loaded up my spectrum analyzer, computer, several spools of coax, and a few splitters and headed out to put this test to bed once and for all.

THE TEST

For Rounds 1 and 2, I used the same window as the desk in front of it was unoccupied at the time. This time around, I opted for a slightly different location between two desks so that I wasn’t interfering with everyone’s work. Additionally; since the test position had now shifted by about six feet, I decided to re-test every antenna from Rounds 1 and 2 to be consistent and fair to all.

Here's what the test site looked like.

 

And here's the 'reference' bow tie antenna taped to the window.

I was assisted in my endeavor by John Turner, the owner and president of Turner Engineering and a long-time veteran of the broadcast systems integration world. Using AVCOM’s PSA-2500C spectrum analyzer, we positioned a $4.99 Radio Shack bow tie antenna (no longer available) for best reception of WNJM-51 (now known as “NJTV”) out of Montclair, NJ.

I also connected a Hauppauge Aero-M USB stick DTV received to pull in each station, in tandem with the TS Reader MPEG stream analyzer program to verify reliable reception (i.e. low bit rate errors). Each antenna under test fed the spectrum analyzer and Aero-M through a two-way splitter, and each antenna was placed in exactly the same spot on the east-facing window, using four pieces of masking tape as markers for alignment.

For each test, I scanned for channels using the Aero-M receiver. Next, I scanned each physical TV channel that was received with TS Reader to see how clean that stations’ MPEG stream was. Finally, I captured screen shots of the actual waveforms from each station I received. And if those three steps didn’t prove which antenna works the best, I don’t know what would!

THE RESULTS

For the record, here are all of the test antennas:

 

Radio Shack bow tie ($4.99, no longer offered, but you can find them on eBay)

Clear Cast X1 ($68 plus shipping)

Walltenna ($35 plus shipping)

Mohu Leaf ($38 plus shipping)

Mohu Leaf Plus ($75 plus shipping)*

Winegard FlatWave ($40, free shipping through August 31)

Antennas Direct ClearStream Micron XG ($100 plus shipping)*

* – amplified, or comes with optional amplifier

 

For my tests, I scanned for all New York City and New Jersey DTV stations within range of Turner Engineering. One local station (WMBC-18) was so strong that I essentially discounted it from my test results – it would have come in with a paper clip!

The Clear Cast X1 is definitely NOT worth $70. Let the buyer beware!

 

But other stations weren’t quite as strong. WABC-7 is a good test of high band VHF reception, inasmuch as every antenna in the test is supposed to pull in both VHF and UHF signals. WNJB-8 in the Watchung Hills of New Jersey is another good test of VHF reception.

For UHF signals, I checked out WNYE-24 (atop the Empire State Building), WNBC-28 (also on Empire and usually strong), WFME-29 (in West Orange, NJ), WFUT-30 (on Empire), WCBS-33 (Empire), WWOR-38 (Empire), and WNJM-51 (Montclair, NJ).

I didn’t expect the antennas to have much luck with WABC or WNJB, as they are too small to have much gain at VHF frequencies. The amplified antennas were a different story, though. If you are aggressively marketing indoor TV antennas for ‘all band’ reception, then you’d better deliver!

Table 1 shows how the unamplified antennas compared to each other. Satisfactory reception is indicated by glitch-free video streams for at least one minute and a ‘clean’ reading with TS Reader, while Table 2 shows how the amplified antennas (or amplified variations) compared.

Yes, you can actually attach the Micron XG to glass with masking tape! (The reflector was a tad more difficult to install...)

 

Note that the ClearStream Micron XG was tested three different ways –‘ bare bones’ with no amplifier or reflector in Table 1; with its amplifier switched to 15 dB mode in Table 2, and with the amplifier on and the accessory reflector attached in Table 2.

 

Antenna

WABC-7

WNJB-8

WNYE-24

WNBC-28

WFME-29

WFUT-30

WCBS-33

WWOR-38

WNJB-51

RS Bow Tie

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

CC X1

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

Walltenna

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Mohu Leaf

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

FlatWave

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Micron XG

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Table 1 – Unamplified antenna performance

 

Antenna

WABC-7

WNJB-8

WNYE-24

WNBC-28

WFME-29

WFUT-30

WCBS-33

WWOR-38

WNJB-51

Leaf Plus

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Micron XG w/amp

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Micron XG w/amp and refl.

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Table 2 – Amplified antenna performance

 

Oddly enough, the Micron XG was the only unamplified antenna to pull in WWOR-38. But it was ‘tone deaf’ when it came to the two high band VHF stations. Neither version of the Mohu Leaf could snag WWOR-38, either.

As for the vaunted Clear Cast X1, it was unresponsive to any VHF channels and couldn’t hear local station WNJM-51. In contrast, the late, lamented Radio Shack bow tie worked exceptionally well on just about every UHF channel.

Bonus reception: WNJU-36, which is a tough signal to pull in at this indoor location, was successfully reeled in by the Micron XG with amplifier and reflector. So was WXTV-40, also pulled in with and without the accessory reflector.

THE CHARTS

I’ve included a few charts to show what the actual DTV received signals looked like on the AVCOM analyzer. You may be surprised to see how small the differences are between each antenna, and you will also note that the reflector didn’t improve reception at all on the Micron XG – in fact, it actually made things worse, probably due to all of the signal reflections and multipath at the test site.

As a reference, the actual signal levels shown are about 12 dB stronger at the displayed resolution bandwidth (300 kHz).

Here's what the RF spectrum looks like from channels 18 to 51, using the bow tie antenna.

 

And here's the same spectral view using the Clear Cast X1...

 

...using the ClearStream Micron XG...

 

...and using the Mohu Leaf (no amplifier).

 

Here's channel 51, the former WNJM, as received on the bow tie...

 

...and here's the same station on the Clear Cast X1. No improvement.

 

Winegard's FlatWave pulled in channel 51 more robustly...

 

...as did the Walltenna.

 

Finally, here are received waveforms for WNJU-36 and WWOR-38, using the ClearStream MIcron XG with the amplifier set to 15 dB, but minus the reflector...

 

...and here's what those same waveforms looked like AFTER I installed the reflector. Reception actually worsened, something I saw on numerous other UHF channels. Indoor DTV reception can be funny that way!

CONCLUSIONS

It’s hard to make much or an argument for spending very much money on an indoor DTV antenna when you see how well the lowly $5 bow tie design performed! This antenna design has been around since the 1950s and is just one of those things that can’t be improved on – unless you build an array of them. (‘X’-shaped colinear UHF antennas perform the same as the bow ties.) It’s just unfortunate that no mainstream electronics retailer sells these anymore. (Hey Radio Shack, are you listening?)

However, it’s easy to make the argument that the Clear Cast X1 is definitely not worth spending $70 on, especially since it was easily outperformed by the far less costly Leaf, Walltenna, and FlatWave antennas. Even the bow tie picked up six more stations than the X1 in my overall tests, two of them on VHF. I don’t know what’s inside the plastic housing, but I’d bet it is nothing more than a simple dipole, bow tie, or loop antenna (Clear Cast’s claims to having a ‘patent pending’ notwithstanding). Keep your wallets in your pockets!

Among the basic flat antennas, I still prefer the Leaf – it’s smaller and more esthetically pleasing than the Walltenna (which still  does a good job, better than the FlatWave) and it’s been a reliable performer everywhere I travel. The Leaf Plus is a bit pricey at $75, but the amplifier – while not as powerful as that on the ClearStream Micron XG – helps pull in marginal stations and doesn’t add much to the form factor.

As for the Micron XG, I had mixed feelings about it. It’s big and somewhat blocky, expensive, and based on my tests, you can’t depend on it for VHF reception in suburban locations, a chore the other ‘flat’ antennas handled without much difficulty. In its favor, the Micron XG did pull in WWOR, something no other antenna could do. (Maybe that outcome was just a fortuitous combination of antenna position and signal level?)

The Micron XG amplifier makes a big improvement, but I’d suggest running it no higher than 15 dB. The 20 dB setting creates too much noise and also degrades weak signals, as observed with the spectrum analyzer. The lower-gain 10 dB setting is also very handy in fringe urban areas where you don’t need tons of signal, but just need to boost the carrier-to-noise ratio (CNR) a bit.

And that reflector? It’s hardly worth bothering with, as it didn’t improve reception on any of the tested channels and in some cases degraded it. Those results were puzzling, because the reflector effectively converts the antenna pattern to something resembling a two-element yagi, which should have more gain as it becomes more directional. Maybe you’d have different results over a line-of-sight (LOS) path, but that’s hard to ensure when trying to grab DTV signals indoors.

In any case, you should be able to get a decent indoor DTV antenna for less than $50. Stay away from the amplified versions unless you live in a fringe urban or outer suburban area, where there are less likely to be out-of-band sources of overload and interference. Always place your antenna near a window and/or closest to the direction of the TV transmitter(s) for best results.

Good luck!