Posts Tagged ‘Channel Master’

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: 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.).

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

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.