Posts Tagged ‘Cord cutting’

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.).

Cord-Cutting: A Slow And Steady Drip, Drip, Drip

An interesting study was just conducted by consulting firm cg42 and it claims that pay TV service providers stand to lose as much as $1 billion in revenue over the next 12 months. The reason? Cg42 says that as many as 800,000 customers are likely to ‘cut the cord’ in an attempt to save money on pay TV packages and bundles.

Cg42 surveyed 1,119 customers online this past summer and calculated that pay TV companies could lose as much as $1,248 per lost subscriber on an annual basis. In their survey, they found that the average pay TV subscriber spends about $187 per month for cable TV, phone, Internet access, and video streaming subscriptions.

In contrast, ‘cord nevers’ – people who have never subscribed to pay TV services – spend about $71 per month on broadband access and video streaming subscriptions. The streaming part of that amounts to as little as $15 per month.

Cg42’s survey revealed that both cord-cutters and cord-nevers don’t care much for traditional TV programming, and 83% of cord-cutters said they can access most or all of the content they want to watch without a pay TV subscription. (87% of cord-nevers said the same thing.)

Perhaps more ominous for companies like Comcast and Time Warner, the satisfaction of watching TV without paying for cable or satellite services increases the longer these viewers remain away from pay TV subscriptions.

The most popular streaming service is still Netflix, which 94% of respondents subscribe to.  And number 2? YouTube’s free video channels, which offer selected clips from late night talk shows and musical performances.

Surprisingly, many respondents get their sports fix by going to bars or restaurants to watch games. The survey didn’t mention how many people also watch sports on free over-the-air TV, which of course includes NFL games, selected baseball games and the World Series, the NHL playoffs, and the NBA playoffs, plus the Olympics, golf, tennis, and NASCAR/Indy Car racing.

Surveys like these aren’t anything new. We’ve seen analysts forecasting the end of traditional pay TV packages for several years now. However, there is a real concern about the cost of these monthly services, and whether they’re worth the price.

I’ve advised numerous folks on how to get free over-the-air television and supplement it with streaming services to save money – and in fact, later today, I’ll be visiting someone nearby to do an RF site survey and see how well he can receive the local Philadelphia stations at home (upward of 50 minor channels).

Couple that with broadband service and there’s no real reason to stay with pay TV, especially now that you can subscribe to HBO and Showtime online without a pay TV service.  You can also do without landline phone service if you have a mobile phone, further reducing your monthly expenditures.

I said this a few years ago in several columns: The future of cable TV is providing broadband service. Just like mobile phone companies charge you only for data (phone calls and messaging are basically free now), so will cable and satellite companies. They will look more like the electric company, charging you for however many gigabytes you used that month.

And how you use the data will be up to you: sending and receiving photos, streaming video, emails, and voice-over-IP. That’s the real future of Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Bright House, and other MSOs. The question is, have they accepted it yet?

To Cut, Or Not To Cut: That Is The Question…

A recent report from Convergence Consulting Group states that by their estimates, 1.13 million TV households in the United States canceled pay TV services in 2015, which is about four times the pace of cancellations in 2014.

The report is somewhat humorously called “The Battle For The North America Couch Potato” and shows that even though pay TV subscription revenue increased by 3% in 2015 to $105B and is expected to tick up another 2% in 2016 to $107B, those percentages don’t match up to the rapid growth now being experienced with over-the-top (OTT) video services, like Netflix and Hulu.

Over the same time period, OTT subscription revenue increased by 29% to $5.1B in 2015, and is expected to grow another 20% this year to $6.1B. Now, that’s just 5.6% of the revenue forecast for conventional pay TV this year. But the growth rate of OTT is impressive and is mostly at the expense of conventional cable, fiber, and satellite TV subscriptions.

Convergence also reports that “cord never” and “cord cutter” households increased to 24.6M in 2015 from 22.5M in 2014. It’s expected that number will continue to increase to 26.7M households by the end of this year. (For some perspective, Comcast has a total of about 23 million broadband subscribers, which is more than their pay TV subscriber total.)

It’s no mystery why OTT continues to grow in popularity. Services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime allow viewers to watch individual movies and episodes of TV shows on demand for reasonable prices, either as part of a mow monthly subscriber fee or an annual membership fee + small per-viewing charges.

In essence, what OTT viewers get is a la carte TV, instead of paying a hundred dollars or more for a service bundle that includes large blocks of TV channels that never get watched. (The average TV viewer watches about 17 different channels in a year.)  And the key to making that possible is ever-faster broadband speeds, which (perhaps ironically) are being offered by cable TV companies to hold off the likes of Verizon’s FiOS, DirecTV, and Dish.

The analogy is of someone providing you the rope with which they will be hung. As Internet speeds increase along with cable bills, the first thing to get dumped is the pay TV channels. With many families, they’ve also dropped landline service in favor of mobile phones, so there’s no need for a “triple play” package (or even a “double play,” which in baseball means you’re out!)

There aren’t enough studies on hand to show how many of those cutters have picked up on watching free, over-the-air (OTA) digital TV broadcasts. And there continues to be disputes between different advocacy groups as to how much of the population actually watches OTA TV: I’ve seen estimates as low as 5-6% and as high as 20%.

Now, the second part of the story: Vizio, a leading TV brand, is now shipping a line of SmartCast Ultra HDTVs that will be “tuner-free.” You read that right; these TVs won’t have an on-board ATSC tuner for OTA broadcasts. An extra tuner would be required, along with an HDMI connection and indoor or outdoor antenna.

Technically speaking, a “TV” sold in the United States MUST have an ATSC tuner built-in, according to the FCC mandate that set a final compliance deadline of March 1, 2007. However, there is no reason why a company can’t sell a “monitor” or “display,” which would not be required to contain such a tuner. (The original FCC mandate exempted monitors that did not include analog tuners from having a digital tuner.)

Don't bother buying an antenna for SmartCast TVs. There's no built-in tuner to use it with.

Don’t bother buying an antenna for SmartCast TVs. There’s no built-in tuner to use it with.

 

According to a story on the TechHive Web site, the changes will apply to all of Vizio’s 4K Ultra HD TVs with SmartCast, including the new P-Series and upcoming E- and M-Series sets. In the story, a Vizio representative was quoted as saying that the company’s own surveys showed that less than 10 percent of their customers watched OTA broadcasts, and that a CEA (now CTA) study in 2013 claimed that just 7% of U.S. households used antennas to watch TV.

That figure is obviously low by an order of magnitude. In the 3rd quarter of 2015, the research firm Nielsen found that 12.8 million U.S. homes were relying solely on OTA TV reception, up from 12.2 the year before, and that this number didn’t include homes that are combining antenna broadcasts and streaming. All told, the percentage of homes that use an indoor or outdoor antenna in some way to watch TV probably falls between 10% and 12% – and could be even higher.

So why would Vizio drop the tuner? There’s certainly a cost savings associated with it, and not just for the hardware – there are also royalties associated with the underlying technology. But given that you can buy an outboard ATSC tuner for as little as $40, it can’t be a huge cost savings.

What’s funny about Vizio’s approach is that retailers are offering more antennas and even offering streaming media players and antennas as bundles. I’ve even noticed that the offerings of indoor TV antennas have increased at the local Best Buy (outdoor antennas are still a tough sell; only us hard-core OTA viewers will take the time to install them).

It doesn’t appear any other TV brands are following suit. However, there is a fly in the ointment: ATSC 3.0, which as a completely new standard would require an outboard set-top box or perhaps a USB stick to work with existing TVs. That’s because it supports different transmission modes that are incompatible with current ATSC tuners.

Another wrinkle – there’s no timeline for adoption of version 3.0. Right now, we’re in the middle of the first wave of FCC channel auctions, meaning that the UHF TV spectrum may be somewhat truncated after all is said and done – and many stations will have to relocate. So moving to a new terrestrial broadcast standard won’t be a priority for broadcasters any time soon.

By The Numbers – Or Maybe Not

Several news stories crossed my desk this morning that are each worth closer scrutiny. The first one comes from Reuters and says that Dish Network’s quarterly revenue missed forecasts as more customers disconnected their satellite antennas.

Dish stated that they had lost 23,000 subscribers on a net basis for the quarter ending September 30. In the same time period a year earlier, the net loss was 12,000 subs, almost half as many. And apparently the company’s new $20/month streaming service, Sling TV, isn’t proving to be as popular as expected.

The combination of DirecTV with AT&T also puts Dish at a competitive advantage, since AT&T can offer bundles of service (including mobile telephone) at competitive prices. Satellite TV has always been at a disadvantage to cable and fiber optic services due to issues with reception during inclement weather and the inability of some home and apartment sites to “see” the satellites, ruling out installations.

In my neighborhood, several folks canceled service from Comcast in recent years and picked up Dish and DirecTV as a cost-saving measure, only to drop both when Verizon laid fiber optic cables for FiOS and offered some low-cost, triple-play bundles that Dish and DirecTV couldn’t beat. (Internet service via satellite isn’t exactly fast and reliable.)

Right now, Dish’s most valuable asset is the UHF frequency spectrum acquired in FCC auctions- but it looks like that spectrum may go back for re-auction next February. And the DirecTV / AT&T juggernaut may force Dish into a merger to stay alive – or perhaps an outright sale.

So things aren’t looking too good for pay TV service providers? Not according to TDG Research. In a story on the Multichannel News site, TDG claims that “the percentage of adult broadband users (ADUs) who were moderately or highly likely to cancel their pay TV service in the next six months dropped 20% since last year.”

TDG went on to say that the group of consumers saying they “definitely will cancel” their pay TV service in the next six months has been cut in half — down from 2.9% in early 2014 to 1.4% in early 2015.” They cite the fact that Comcast only lost 48,000 video subscribers in Q3 2015, as opposed to 81,000 in the same quarter a year ago.

The problem with opinion surveys vs. market trends is that opinions can change abruptly. After a series of mishaps with Comcast’s Xfinity platform earlier this year (and well-documented on this site), I was about ready to throw in the towel and switch over to FiOS myself! But after my original complaint was resolved (replacing the buried cable from the drop to my house) and I wound up with a new modem (802.11ac 2.4/5 GHz), plus much faster Internet speeds and new Xfinity set-top boxes, I decided to stay with the devil I know – for now.

So the TDG data may reflect consumer preferences right now, but what will actually happen remains to be seen when the next set of quarterly data becomes available in January or February of next year.

There’s no arguing with numbers, however. From the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) comes a report that consumers spent more money on digital video downloads and video streaming through the first nine months of 2015 than on rentals and purchases of DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

According to a story on the TWICE Web site, consumers forked over almost $6.5 billion on downloaded and streamed videos. The “digital” category includes subscription streaming and video-on-demand (VOD), plus digital downloads such as movies to tablets and smartphones. (Like I do when I fly cross-country).

In contrast, the dollar amount spent on rentals and purchases of optical disc media amounted to $6.3 billion – close, but still in 2nd place. From January through September, revenue from downloads and streaming rose by almost 16% Y-Y, while revenue from DVD/BD purchases declined by 14% and disc rentals dropped 7.1%.

Within the streaming/downloads category, the lion’s share of revenue (3.65B, or 57%) went to subscription streaming, while digital downloads captured 21% or $1.34B. The rest went to subscription video-on-demand ($1.41B, or 22%).

What’s interesting is that in 2014, the DEG states that “consumers spent more on physical media, about $6.93 billion, compared with $7.53 billion spent on digital downloads and streaming.” Overall, that means that in 2014, consumers whipped out their credit cards to the tune of $14.46B, or about $1.2B per month. Through September of 2015, that number is $12.74B total, or $1.42B per month – an increase of about 15%.

So there you have it. Cord-cutting (or “dish dumping”) is on the rise. Or maybe it isn’t, if we are to believe the preferences of consumers. Or maybe it’s the HDMI cable we’re cutting, preferring to stream and download videos as opposed to playing them back from optical discs.

One statistic I wish the DEG would delve deeper into concerns the installed base of Blu-ray players – almost 80 million households own one now, according to DEG. But how often are they used for playing movies, as opposed to streaming movies and TV shows from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other services? We just don’t know.

 

USEFUL GADGETS: Three Antennas and a Preamplifier for Cord-Cutters

The cord-cutting landscape has changed considerably in the past twelve months, and it’s no longer a fad, but a growing trend as more and more consumers decide that they can get by just fine without expensive pay TV channel packages.

In fact, Comcast reported yesterday that they now have more subscribers for broadband service than for pay TV channels, which accords greater importance to Comcast’s failure to acquire Time Warner: The combined companies would have controlled broadband distribution to a disproportionate number of U.S. homes.

While Internet service is the key part of cord-cutting, free over-the-air television still pays an important part. Think of the Super Bowl, the NHL Stanley Cup and NBA championships, and the NCAA Final Four championship game.

But there’s also a lot of good programming on free TV right now. In recent months, my wife and I have used our Channel Master DVR+ and TiVo HD to time-shift and watch The Blacklist, American Crime, Brooklyn 9-9, The Good Wife, 60 Minutes, American Odyssey, CSI, Blackish, Saturday Night Live, and Mr. Selfridge (plus a host of one-time PBS programs).

Throw in some Netflix streaming (House of Cards) and there’s plenty to watch without Big Cable. So a balanced cord-cutting approach should incorporate both broadband and terrestrial broadcast TV.

To get the former, you need a fast Internet connection and a late-model Wi-Fi router. To get the latter, you only need some sort of antenna to connect to your television or receiver/DVR, like the Channel Master box, TiVo’s Roamio, Tablo, or Mohu’s new Channels product.

Blessed with a few days of nice weather, I decided to excavate my pile of review products and found three antennas patiently waiting for testing. The first was a rather odd-looking design from HD Frequency, called the CC Aerowave ($49 with 12’ cable from www.hdfrequency.com). It resembles a small window with a 75-ohm coaxial balun attached to the inner corners of two panes.

The second antenna came all the way from Australia and goes by the name HD Quad ($39.99 from www.hd-quad.com). It’s a flexible, transparent antenna with UHF collinear elements, not unlike many other antennas I’ve tested.

The last antenna is a bit larger and is a six-element VHF/UHF yagi, and comes from Channel Master. The StealthTenna 50 (CM3010HD, $29.00 from www.channelmaster.com) can be mounted indoors or outdoors. It’s small enough to sit in a closet or attic space, or even in a room – think of it as functional art.

I also found a new inline signal preamplifier from Antennas Direct. The Juice UHF/VHF Amplifier ($79.99 from www.antennasdirect.com) can be used inside or outside and provides about 18 dB of signal boost with a low noise figure, which is real handy in areas where TV reception can be problematic. (Successful digital TV reception is all about signal-to-noise ratio!)

The tried-and-true bowtie antenna under test. Note the high-tech antenna mount.

The tried-and-true bowtie antenna under test. Note the high-tech antenna mount.

The HD Quad under test.

The HD Quad under test.

The CC Aerowave under test.

The CC Aerowave under test.

Channel Master's StealthTenna 50 under test.

Channel Master’s StealthTenna 50 under test.

THE SET-UP

For this round of testing, I dusted off my tried-and-true UHF bowtie antenna, once available from Radio Shack but largely ignored by retailers today. (Seriously – how many of them want to sell a $5 TV product?)

I set the bowtie up on a folding table in my home office and attached it to a large cardboard box with masking tape. While that part of the test was decidedly low-tech, I then connected the antenna lead into a two-way splitter, with one leg going to a spectrum analyzer and the other going to a Hauppauge Aero-M USB tuner, connected to my Toshiba laptop.

This arrangement allowed me to see the actual waveform and signal strength of each TV station under test. I could then verify successful reception with the Aero-M, and to close the deal, look at the actual MPEG-2 video stream from each station using TS Reader. These three measurements gave me a very concise report on the performance of each antenna.

If you go back to my last round of testing in November of 2014, you’ll see that I used the same antenna position (different box, though!) and same test gear. The only possible differences in testing would come from the amount of foliage on nearby trees, as my house is partially blocked from the Philadelphia/Roxborough antenna towers over a20+ mile path. (In other words, an ideal site for indoor TV antenna testing!)

The Philadelphia TV market is unique in that it has two high-power, low-band VHF TV stations – KJWP (IND) on channel 2, and WPVI (ABC) on channel 6. There are only 40 or so low-band DTVs in operation nowadays as that part of the RF spectrum is susceptible to impulse noise and strange propagation enhancement. Antennas that work well from channels 2 through 6 (about 54 to 88 MHz) are also very large – a half-wavelength dipole for channel 6 needs to be about 68 inches long!

There’s also one high-band VHF operation on channel 12, WHYY (PBS). The rest of the Philly DTV stations are active on the UHF band, starting at channel 17 (WPHL) and ending at channel 42 (WTXF (FOX)). In addition, I can easily pick up three DTV stations from the Allentown area: WBPH-9, WLVT-39 (PBS), and WFMZ-46 (IND). There’s even a repeater for WTXF on channel 38 that shows up on my home antenna array, plus WNJT-43 in Trenton.

The performance of each antenna was verified with an AVCOM spectrum analyzer, Hauppauge Aero-M USB stick receiver, and TS Reader software.

The performance of each antenna was verified with an AVCOM spectrum analyzer, Hauppauge Aero-M USB stick receiver, and TS Reader software.

THE TESTS

I picked a handful of stations to verify reception: WPVI-6, WBPH-9, WHYY-12, WPHL-17, KYW-26 (CBS), WUVP-29 (UNI), WCAU-34 (NBC), WYBE-35 (IND), WLVT-39, WTXF-42, and WFMZ-46. Any of these antennas would be doing an outstanding job if they grabbed all of these stations, as their signal levels vary widely and there’s about 113 degrees directional offset between the Roxborough and Allentown antenna towers.

The first measurements were made with the bowtie, but unamplified and with the Juice amplifier connected. I then repeated these measurements with the HD Quad, CC Aerowave, and StealthTenna 50; again, unamplified and amplified. (I’ll have separate comments at the end of this article on the performance of the Juice amplifier.)

Perhaps the toughest signal to pull in is WPVI on channel 6. Two of the review antennas aren’t really designed for low-band VHF reception, but WPVI runs quite a bit of power and manages to get picked up by brute force on many antennas. (None of the test antennas could pull in KJWP-2 reliably). The rest of the stations aren’t quite as challenging to pull in.

Table 1. Here's how each antenna performed with 11 VHF/UHF  test channels.

Table 1. Here’s how each antenna performed with 11 VHF/UHF test channels.

Table 1 shows the results of my tests. Amplifiers do make a big difference, and helped the lowly bowtie antenna and StealthTenna 50 capture first place with 9 out of 11 stations received reliably (i.e. no drop-outs for at least a full minute). To be fair, the StealthTenna 50 is a much larger, directional antenna than the CC Aerowave and HD Quad, both of which should behave like dipoles with classic figure-8 patterns.

Table 2 ranks the antennas by performance. The bowtie by itself wound up in a three-way tie for second place with the amplified HD Quad and bare-bones StealthTenna 50, grabbing 8 out of 11 signals. Following behind was the amplified CC Aerowave, having received 7 out of 11 stations successfully and the bare-bones HD Quad with 6 out of 11 stations.

Table 2. And here's how each antenna/amplifier combination ranked after the tests.

Table 2. And here’s how each antenna/amplifier combination ranked after the tests.

 

The Aerowave was a puzzler. By itself, it only received one station – WFMZ on channel 46. I experimented with laying it flat and orienting it at right-angles to the Roxborough antenna farm to try and improve reception, and oddly enough, both of these alignments were more successful than simply positioning the antenna with its face in the correct compass heading. Lying flat, it picked up 4 of 11 stations successfully, while angled at 90 degrees, it grabbed 6 of 11.

The literature supplied with the Aerowave says you can “position the antenna in any desired location,” but based on my results, you may be futzing with it for a while to get the best reception – something I didn’t have any problems with when using the Mohu Leaf, Ultimate, and Winegard FlatWave antennas last November.

Just how much difference does an amplifier make? Here's a view of channel 2 through 6, as received by the bowtie antenna, unamplified. WPVI's signal on channel 6 is at the center of the screen.

Just how much difference does an amplifier make? Here’s a view of channel 2 through 6, as received by the bowtie antenna, unamplified. WPVI’s signal on channel 6 is at the center of the screen.

And here's the spectral view with the Juice amplifier inline. You can actually see KJWP's signal on channel 2 now (far left).

And here’s the spectral view with the Juice amplifier inline. You can actually see KJWP’s signal on channel 2 now (far left).

 

ADDING SOME JUICE

Antenna Direct’s Juice amplifier worked much better than expected. Its specifications call for 17.5 dB of gain on VHF channels and 19 dB of gain on UHF channels. (10 dB = 10 times the signal strength, with each 3 dB in gain doubling the previous signal level.) The amplifier’s noise figure was specified as below 2 dB in the VHF bands and below 3 dB in the UHF bands.

In my tests, the Juice boosted WPVI’s signal on channel 6 by about 15 dB and raised the noise floor from about -87 dBm to -85 dBm – or 2 dB, as the specifications claim. All amplifiers generate noise, and a good design will keep that to a minimum to avoid spurious signals and interference to desired signals. (Cheap amplifiers won’t!) Performance was comparable on channels 9, 12, and even 17, where I saw signal levels increase by about 18 dB.

At the high end of the UHF band, I saw an improvement of 20 dB with an increase in noise figure of about 2.5 dB, using WFMZ’s powerful signal on channel 46 for testing. That’s excellent performance for a UHF amplifier and rivals that of the Channel Master Titan-series mast-mounted amplifiers I’ve been using for years. (Titan 2 VHF/UHF 16 dB $65.00, Titan 2 VHF/UHF 30 dB $69, both available from www.channelmaster.com)

I don’t have any data on the Juice’s resistance to intermodulation signal distortion (or overloading from very strong in-band and adjacent-band signals), other than to say that the dozens of very strong FM radio carriers that also broadcast from Roxborough didn’t create any reception issues for me with channel 6 when the amplifier was inline.

Here's a spectral view of WBPH-9 and WHYY-12 with no amplification...

Here’s a spectral view of WBPH-9 and WHYY-12 with no amplification…

And here are both channels after turning on

And here are both channels after turning on “the Juice.”

 

Here is a view of the UHF TV spectrum from channel 17 to channel 46, as received by the Aerowave with the Juice amplifier. (I could only pick up one signal without amplification.)

Here is a view of the UHF TV spectrum from channel 17 to channel 46, as received by the Aerowave with the Juice amplifier. (I could only pick up one signal without amplification.) Many of the TV signal waveforms are quite distorted, which makes the job of the adaptive equalizers that much harder.

Here's the same view of the UHF TV spectrum, this time received by the HD Quad equipped with the Juice amplifier.

Here’s the same view of the UHF TV spectrum, this time received by the HD Quad equipped with the Juice amplifier. Note that the TV signal waveforms are somewhat cleaner with less multipath distortion.

One more look at the UHF TV spectrum, this time through the elements on Channel Master's StealthTenna 50 and Juice amplifier.

One more look at the UHF TV spectrum, this time through the elements on Channel Master’s StealthTenna 50 and Juice amplifier. Most received channels are very clean with little multipath distortion.

Finally, the same UHF TV spectrum, this time as received by the lowly bowtie, again with

Finally, the same UHF TV spectrum, this time as received by the lowly bowtie, again with “Juice.” Amazing how well such a simple antenna works, isn’t it? That big spike on the far right is WFMZ-46, whose operating frequency is close to resonance with the half-wave loop created by the bowtie antenna. Hence, the very strong signal. (At one time, channel 46 was near the middle of the UHF band, believe it or not!)

CONCLUSIONS

It is amazing how little antenna you need to achieve indoor TV reception. My location is sub-optimal in this regard, given my distance to Roxborough and the number of obstructions in my path.

Yet, with just a $5 bowtie antenna, I was able to receive eight TV stations reliably (5 from Philadelphia and 3 from Allentown), including all major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, and PBS). Adding the Juice amplifier brought in one more station, and probably fiddling with the bowtie position would have captured the remaining two on my list.

Channel Master’s StealthTenna 50 isn’t exactly small, but you can put it in tight locations indoors for reception, such as a townhouse attic. You can even install it on top of a shelf, or in a closet, and with an amplifier, it will do an excellent job – just use one of the many TV reception Web sites (TVFool.com is the best) to determine the compass heading and where to aim your antenna.

The HD Quad behaves like many other collinear antenna designs I’ve tested. It’s transparent, so you can hang it in a window, and it is a better performer on UHF channels than on VHF. Add an amplifier to it and you may grab a few more channels. One bonus – you can roll it up and take it with you on trips, as I often do. Hook it up to a USB tuner stick and you can watch local HDTV on your computer in hotel rooms.

The CC Aerowave was, to put it mildly, a disappointment. I even tried moving it to different locations, using the spectrum analyzer to peak the signal and see if I could improve those reception numbers. No dice! Some signals that wouldn’t come in at all were now just intermittent with frequent dropouts and frozen images. Adding the Juice amplifier didn’t help much, so I can’t recommend this antenna.

Finally, Antennas Direct’s Juice amplifier is a solid performer and delivers the goods. A noise figure approaching 2 dB in the UHF TV band is excellent performance for the price. There is a puzzler, though – although this amplifier is obviously weatherized, it doesn’t come with a mounting bracket for installation on a mast, which is the best place to out it to overcome signal loss and noise in the antenna downlead. Something for the AD folks to figure out…