Posts Tagged ‘Indoor DTV reception’

Once More, Back to the – Window??

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

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

WHY INDOOR TV?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

The

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

ANYTHING GOOD ON TONIGHT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE COMPETITORS – PASSIVE DIVISION

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

WNJM-51, as received on the FlatWave antenna…

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

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

 

THE COMPETITORS – AMPLIFIED DIVISION

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

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

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

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

I think we reached the practical load limit for 1

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

 

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

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

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

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

THE TEST

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Here's a view of the UHF TV spectrum as

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

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

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

 

THE RESULTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frequently Asked Questions

I haven’t run a Letters column on HDTVexpert.com in several years. And there’s a good reason for that: With everything else on my plate these days, I keep forgetting to do it. (That was Steve Martin’s favorite excuse, as I recall: “I forgot!”)

Even so, I find that there are certain questions that keep popping up after my classes and presentations, not to mention after some of my more controversial articles. And there’s no better time to address some of them with the holiday shopping season now upon us.

So let’s get started!

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Q. What (kind of) (brand) (size) TV should I buy?

A. Not surprisingly, I get this question a lot. But you may be surprised at my answer: Whatever you like.

The fact is; TV prices have never been lower. I spotted numerous Black Friday specials where TVs were selling for less than $10 per diagonal inch. Imagine that! You can pick up major brand 42-inch LCD TVs for less than $400 now. $900 will buy you a major brand 60-inch plasma TV (that price was $1000 a year ago). Heck, you can score a 70-inch LCD TV for $2,000!

Frankly, it’s hard to go wrong these days. Prices are so low that even if you grow disenchanted with your purchase after a year or two, you can just recycle it and buy a new one. To put things into perspective, add up what you pay for mobile phone service annually, plus the cost of a smart phone that you’ll get rid of in two years.

Is that number on the high side of $1,200? For about the same amount of money, you could buy a pair of 47-inch LED-backlit LCD TVs. Or a fully-loaded “smart” 3D LED LCD TV with Web browser. For what my 42-inch Panasonic TH-42PZ80U cost me in September 2008 ($1,099), I can now buy two 42-inch 1080p plasma TVs and get more HDMI inputs with reduced power consumption. Amazing!

Here’s a tip: No need to rush out and grab a TV before Christmas. The best deals are typically in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, so if you can wait that long, you’ll see some huge savings. But even if you just gotta watch your favorite college or pro team on a new TV, you’ll still find some great prices through the next four weeks.

 

Q. You’ve always been a big advocate for plasma. Now you’re telling me that plasma is going away. How can that happen? Don’t people care about picture quality?

A. It’s simply a matter of economics. The TV-buying public has voted and voted overwhelmingly for LCD technology. One of the major consumer preference studies commissioned earlier in 2012 revealed that residents of the United States generally prefer big, cheap TVs, and don’t care much about the display technology, or Web browsers and 3D. They just want more screen for the buck – and they’re getting it, judging by current retail prices.

Does plasma still have an edge over LCD in terms of picture quality? Well, if you prefer deeper blacks, wider viewing angles without color shifts, and colors similar to what the best CRT TVs and projectors could produce back in the day, then plasma is the way to go.

But LCD TVs are often sold on form factors – how thin they are, how light they are, and how cool they look when turned off and sitting in your living room or family room. Some folks like ‘em because they’re so bright and are largely unaffected by high ambient light levels. And you can’t buy smaller plasma TVs (<40 inches) these days. Last time I looked, the 2nd-largest screen size category in terms of TV sales was 30 to 39 inches. That’s 100% LCD territory.

Plasma TVs are only made by a handful of companies (Panasonic, Samsung, and LG). Plasma TV shipments have been steadily declining over the past five years, aside from a little bump a couple of years ago. Plasma’s share of all TV shipments in Q2 2012 was about 5.5%, which means that more CRT TVs were shipped worldwide than plasma models. (You could look it up.) Simply put; people just aren’t buying it.

Pioneer got out of the plasma TV business almost 5 years ago because they could not compete on price and volume. Panasonic once predicted it would be shipping 11 million plasma TVs a year – that number is now less than half, and Panasonic has been forced to idle a good portion of its plasma fabs as a result of declining demand. (That’s also why Panasonic is now pushing 42-inch, 47-inch, 55-inch, and eventually 60-inch LCD TV screen sizes.)

It’s hard to argue with the numbers.

 

Q. Now that TV prices are so low, should I still have my TV calibrated?

A. Not really. Just about every TV I’ve tested has at least one preset picture mode called “cinema” or “movie” or something like that. If you switch your TV into that mode (or one of the ISF Day or Night modes if present), your TV will be “close enough for government work” when all done.

To be sure, go into your picture menu and check to see that (a) brightness is around 45-50, (b) contrast is about 75-80, (c) sharpness is set to zero, (d) color temperature is set to “mid” or “warm,” (d) and any “auto” gamma, black level, contrast, or brightness modes are disabled or also set to zero.

I’ll wager that you’d be quite happy with your TV’s picture quality after all that. And you will have saved yourself quite a few dollars that can be put to better use, like your monthly pay TV subscription. Or a sound bar to overcome the acoustical limitations of super-thin TVs.

I should add that I still see some value in calibrating home theater projectors, even though some of them also come with “cinema” and “movie” picture presets. Getting the best projected image quality in a darkened room is a very different and more complex process than getting acceptable TV image quality in a fully-lit room.

 

Q. You seem to have it in for Blu-ray and 3D sometimes. Why?

A. I don’t have any particular bias against the Blu-ray format. I own five Blu-ray players and have a sizable stack of movies (as well as a Toshiba HD-DVD player and a stack of HD-DVD discs. Any takers?). And there’s really nothing else out there that compares in image quality to movies on Blu-ray.

What I have taken other analysts, reporters, and public relations companies to task for is ignoring the shifting sands of public opinion, which now clearly favor electronic delivery of movies and TV shows via streaming (Amazon, Netflix, Vudu, and Hulu) over physical discs; the sales and rentals of which are in a steady decline.

I have long maintained that the average consumer doesn’t really care if they own a physical copy of a movie – they just want to be able to watch on their schedule. And for better or worse, streaming services satisfy that desire. Never mind that the picture quality isn’t always that great, or that the stream locks up from time to time. People value convenience and price over quality most every time (it’s an old axiom of economics), and Netflix and Amazon give it to them.

If and when Internet speeds get fast enough on a consistent basis, I’d bet that most consumers would be happy to stream HD movies from a ‘cloud’ server and drop the discs altogether. Or load them onto flash memory for viewing on multiple platforms, like tablets. Why do you think so many WiFi-enabled Blu-ray players have been sold in the past couple of years? It’s for the access to Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu.

Be honest now. How many movies do you have sitting unwatched on shelves in your house, still in their original shrink wrap? Birthday presents? Holiday gifts? Impulse purchases? Who knows from where they came. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get rid of used DVDs these days – even the local libraries don’t want them. Times are changing.

As for 3D, which seems to come along every other sunspot cycle, it was just too expensive and too confusing to the average consumer, who (as I stated earlier) just wants a big, cheap television. The early lack of 3D movie content (caused by exclusive Blu-ray “bundles”), competing presentation formats (active vs. passive vs. autostereo), and scarcity of 3D TV channels (DirecTV’s 3D channel has all but been shut down) just added to the problem.

3D has its place, and right now it’s better suited to larger screens in controlled viewing environments, such as movie theaters and theme parks. TV manufacturers don’t spend much time promoting 3D anymore – they’re just trying to figure out how to get you to buy a new TV these days; any TV.

So 3D will just become a another bell and whistle that you can embrace or ignore on your $800, 55-inch super-thin LED “smart TV” next January.

 

Q. Is there really that much difference between indoor TV antennas? You’ve tested a bunch of them – isn’t it more about marketing hype than anything else?

A. There are many folks out there that are trying to “huckster” people out of their hard-earned cash with “enhanced” or “high-performance” indoor antennas that are little more than a variation on the 60+-year-old bow tie design.

A good example would be the Clear Cast X1, which is little more than a bow tie in a solid plastic housing, connected through a l-o-n-g piece of small diameter, lossy coaxial cable.  This antenna doesn’t work substantially different than a $5 bow tie that Radio Shack used to sell.

Yet, Clear Cast got quite a few people to shell out $70 for it (including me, but that was for testing purposes, not because of a condition of temporary insanity in my part!).

I’ve seen expensive antennas made out of old satellite dishes and UHF yagis. I’ve seen loop antennas, “placemat” antennas, and cylindrical antennas. (Remember the $400 Terk “tanning lamp” HDTV antenna from the late 1990s?)

The physics of TV antennas haven’t changed much since the 1940s and 1950s. Most antenna designs you see now are similar to patented designs from back then, only with some tweaks or enhancements. That said; there are some clever “placemat” antennas available for sale now, and the best models I’ve tested so far are made by Mohu. (The Walltenna isn’t too shabby, either, and Winegard’s FlatWave is a decent performer.)

I’ve gotten a few more models in recently for reviews and will probably just re-test the entire batch soon to establish a new baseline. From experience, I’d say that you don’t need to spend much more than $50 for a good performer, unless you want an amplified version. That will run you another $20 – $30.

But you should be cautious about indoor antennas that sell for three figures – you may be buying more marketing hype than anything else. Caveat emptor!

 

Q. You’ve been predicting recently that projectors are on the way out, and that large LCD screens are going to replace them. Yet, I continue to see market forecasts that projector sales will increase substantially each year. How do you explain that discrepancy?

A. What I’ve stated on more than one occasion is that the availability of large and inexpensive LCD screens (TVs and monitors) will have an impact on projector sales for small to mid-size rooms. That would be conference rooms, meeting rooms, boardrooms, and classrooms that seat anywhere from half a dozen to 50 people.

And I am not making this up. As I travel across the country teaching classes for clients, presenting at major trade shows, and just informally talking to AV consultants, designers, dealers, and systems integrators; I hear again and again that this is actually happening, and not on a small scale.

Apparently, the major push for dumping projectors and moving to a one-piece high-resolution display that doesn’t care about ambient lighting is coming from clients, who see Sharp’s 80-inch LCD TV for $3,999 at Costco and Best Buy and wonder why they can’t put one (or two) in their company offices.

From what I’ve heard, this is a strong trend at financial institutions. Based on early responses to threads I’m running on several LinkedIn groups, it’s also happening in classrooms. Shipments of large LCD and plasma monitor supports are running far ahead of rear-projection frame and supports.

The math behind it is easy to figure out. A two-piece projection screen (usually motorized) and ceiling-mounted projector wind up costing far more than the 80-inch TV (yes, dealers are installing those and getting a multi-year warranty on them). And there are no lights to dim, and no lamps to replace. I don’t have any empirical data on mean time between failures (MTBF) for these large TVs. But so far, people seem very happy with them.

Keep in mind this old saw: A one-piece display solution is always preferable to a two-piece display solution. That’s what’s driving this trend.

 

Enough! Time to close up the mail bag and enjoy the rest of the month before CES hits. Happy holidays!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TEST

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

Here's what the test site looked like.

 

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

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

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

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

THE RESULTS

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

 

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

Clear Cast X1 ($68 plus shipping)

Walltenna ($35 plus shipping)

Mohu Leaf ($38 plus shipping)

Mohu Leaf Plus ($75 plus shipping)*

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

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

* – amplified, or comes with optional amplifier

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Antenna

WABC-7

WNJB-8

WNYE-24

WNBC-28

WFME-29

WFUT-30

WCBS-33

WWOR-38

WNJB-51

RS Bow Tie

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

CC X1

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

Walltenna

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Mohu Leaf

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

FlatWave

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Micron XG

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Table 1 – Unamplified antenna performance

 

Antenna

WABC-7

WNJB-8

WNYE-24

WNBC-28

WFME-29

WFUT-30

WCBS-33

WWOR-38

WNJB-51

Leaf Plus

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Micron XG w/amp

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Micron XG w/amp and refl.

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Table 2 – Amplified antenna performance

 

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

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

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

THE CHARTS

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

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

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

 

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

 

...using the ClearStream Micron XG...

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

...as did the Walltenna.

 

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

 

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Useful Gadgets: Wall-Mounted Indoor DTV Antennas

A few months back, I ran a test of several indoor DTV antennas that you can mount on the wall, or on a window. Specifically, I looked at Mohu’s Leaf antenna and the Walltenna, and compared them to a baseline UHF table-top antenna and a $12 Radio Shack set of rabbit ears and a UHF loop.

 

Since then, I’ve received a few more samples to test against the Mohu and Walltenna. Mohu shipped me the amplified version of their Leaf (Leaf Plus, $74.99) while Winegard dropped off a sample of their FlatWave indoor antenna (FL5000, $39.99).

 

Well, nobody enjoys a good antenna test more than I do – except perhaps John Turner of Turner Engineering in Mountain Lakes, NJ, who offered to let me use his facility for these tests. So, I piled all of the flat antennas used in the December tests plus a Kowatec UHF panel antenna, a $3.99 Radio Shack bowtie, an AVCOM PSA-2500 spectrum analyzer, and a pile of coax jumpers into my car and headed north one fine day in late March.

 

At the test site, I was directed to use a large office window that faced east. A nearby desk provided a home base for the PSA-2500C and my laptop computer, which would simultaneously mirror the spectrum analyzer screen while running a Hauppauge Aero-M ATSC/MH USB stick receiver and the TS Reader MPEG stream analyzer program.

Here's the office window I used for the tests, with theKowatec panel antenna connected.

Here's the logging station, running WinTV7 and TS Reader for each antenna.

 

The methodology was to tape each antenna into the same position, connect 20’ of coax through a two-way splitter, and scan for channels while looking at each received DTV waveform. The TS Reader program would then confirm whether I was actually receiving a signal reliably, by providing me a read-out of the MPEG transport stream and the bit error rates (BER).

 

Speaking in plain English, this test was conducted as fairly as possible, favoring no antenna. I made no effort to try and ‘peak’ antennas for more reliable reception – I just taped them up and scanned away, just as the average consumer would do. Next; for every DTV station I supposedly ‘received’ on the Aero-M, I checked the quality of their signal before giving them a thumbs-up.

 

THE TESTS

 

Simple enough! Once each antenna was mounted to the wall (the Kowatec was attached to a tripod and placed in the same position as the other antennas), I performed a channel scan with the Aero-M, looking for both ATSC and ATSC MH (mobile) DTV signals.

 

After each scan was completed, I looked at each channel that was detected to see if a signal was actually present. (Sometimes ATSC receivers grab just enough PSIP data from an othwerwise weak signal to ‘capture’ it, which is why you have to verify reception.) If the signal played back reliably for several minutes with no drop-outs, I gave it a thumbs-up and moved on to the next detected channel.

For a measly $4, this bow tie antenna gave a very good account of itself.

Here's the Mohu Leaf doing its thing.

The Walltenna isn't easy to photograph against trees!

Winegard's FlatWave resembles the Leaf in appearance, but not in performance.

Here's the Leaf Plus, powered up and snatching signals.

 

After this process was completed, I then used TS Reader to see just how reliably each signal was coming through. TS Reader shows the accumulated number of dropped bits (BER) as you watch the program. The lower the BER, the more reliable the signal.

After compiling a list of stations received with all antennas, I then picked the seven that showed up repeatedly, whether received reliably or not. They were WABC (physical RF channel 7) from New York City, WNJB (physical channel ‘8’) in the Somerset hills in central New Jersey, WMBC (physical channel 18 from Montclair, NJ), WNBC (physical channel 28) from New York City, WWOR (physical channel 38) from New York City, WXTV (physical channel 40) from New York City, and WNJM (physical channel 51), also from Montclair, NJ.

 

According to the TVFool Web site, WMBC and WNJM are just 11.7 miles away from the Turner offices and are both ‘line of sight’ (LOS) paths, while WFME-29 (which didn’t come in reliably on any antenna save one) is a hair closer at 11.4 miles, LOS. WNJB sits 19.4 miles over a LOS path, while WWOR-38 in New York is 24.9 miles and also LOS.

 

WABC-7 and WXTV-40 were both shown as 1-Edge paths from the Empire State Building and also 24.9 miles away, while WNBC-28 was listed as a 2-Edge path (lots of multipath) from the same distance. So I had a nice mix of strong, ‘easy’ signals to go with some weaker, ‘tough’ signals.

 

Table 1 shows the results. A ‘yes’ indication means that the station was received without drop out for at least two minutes AND had a very low or almost zero bit error rate, as verified by TS Reader. A ‘no’ indication means either the station was not received at all, or was detected by PSIP but had too many dropouts to be reliable.

Table 1

 

Not surprisingly, the Kowatec antenna couldn’t pull in either high-band VHF stations 7 or 8. That’s because of simple physics: It has no gain at those frequencies, and its antenna array is too small to be of any use with channels 7 through 13.

 

I didn’t expect much from the Radio Shack bow tie, but it did OK by grabbing channels 8, 18, and 51. Not surprisingly, these are the three strongest signals at the Turner office location, so every other antenna should have pulled them in (which they did).

 

The Mohu Leaf gave a decent accounting of itself, grabbing channels 8, 18, 28 (one of the strongest UHF stations in New York City), 40 (also a powerful signal), and 51. The Walltenna equaled that performance with the same channels – no advantage here.

Here's the strongest local signal, WMBC-18, as received with the Radio Shack bow tie.

The Winegard FlatWave didn't pull in WMBC-18 any better than the bow tie.

Ironically, the now-discontinued Kowatec did a better job with channel 18 than any other non-powered antenna!

 

The FlatWave was a big disappointment, faring no better than the $3.99 bow tie – and it costs ten times as much! Most of the antennas in this test use variations on collinear antenna arrays, but aren’t electrically long enough to have any gain on channels 2-6 and 7-13. But the FlatWave didn’t even have that much gain at UHF frequencies.

 

I saved the Leaf Plus for last. Comparing an amplified antenna to non-amplified versions isn’t a fair test, and as expected, the Leaf Plus pulled in all of the listed stations reliably, except for WWOR-38.

 

However, it added WFME-29 (West Orange, NJ), WFUT-30 (Telefutura from New York), ION-30 (also New York), WCBS-33 (New York), and WNJU-36 (Telemundo, New York) to the list of ‘thumbs up’ stations.

 

Note that a few of these signals are listed as 2-Edge paths with much weaker signal levels on TVFool.com. So this antenna does perform very well, although a bit pricey at $75.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

Reliable digital TV reception is all about having enough signal presented to the receiver so it can do its job. That also means high enough carrier-to-noise ratio (CNR) for the adaptive equalizer circuits to smooth out echoes and other signal reflections caused by multipath.

 

In general, any late-model TV built in the last four years has good-enough adaptive equalizer circuits to accomplish this task if it is presented with enough signal. For people who have problematic over-the-air DTV reception, low signal levels are usually the culprit. I’d suggest using the non-powered antennas if you live 15 miles or less from a DTV transmitter, and switching to an amplified antenna at greater distances. (Once you get much past 25 – 30 miles, you should really put up an outside antenna for best results.)

 

The Mohu Leaf and Walltenna work quite well for close-in DTV reception, while the Leaf Plus makes a big difference at longer distances. The FlatWave is a disappointment – save your money and go with the Leaf or Walltenna instead. Or, try a simple bow-tie or even Radio Shack’s 15-1882 VHF rabbit ears / UHF loop combo instead – for $12, you can hardly go wrong.

 

Ever wonder how much difference an RF amplifier makes? Here's a view of channels 18 through 51 at the test location, using the Mohu Leaf...

 

...and here's the same spectral view, this time using the Mohu Leaf Plus for reception.

Product Review: Three For DTV…Reception (February 2009)

I recently had an opportunity to test indoor DTV reception at a potentially “tough” location in New York City. This particular apartment requires an indoor TV antenna and sits about 3.5 miles from the Empire State Building, alongside Central Park.

The apartment is on a lower floor and next to several tall buildings that contain lots of steel and glass in their outer structures. The challenge was to come up with a model that would provide reasonably strong signals with minimal multipath, looking through or positioned just below a couple of small windows that face west, looking out over the northern section of the park.

Seeing as how RCA had just sent me their ANT1450B amplified VHF/UHF panel antenna (MSRP: $49.95), this seemed like a perfect location to give it a test drive. For more fun, I also packed up Terk’s HDTVa VHF/UHF indoor antenna (MSRP: $59.95) and Radio Shack’s “bare bones” 15-1874 VHF/UHF indoor antenna (MSRP: $11.99), along with a spectrum analyzer to accurately see how each antenna was working.

For test receivers, I packed up the AutumnWave OnAir Solution HDTV-GT receiver (5th gen) and my Acer notebook PC, plus a new entrant to the set-top box field – Aurora Multimedia’s V-Tune Pro HD ATSC/NTSC/QAM/IPTV receiver (MSRP $1,299). This box has RS232 controls and supports both component video and HDMI outputs – plus, it’s LAN-ready for streaming video and updating software and hardware.

THE LOCATION

The test apartment is currently undergoing interior re-decorating, so I simply placed each antenna near one of the two small living room windows and peaked it for best analog TV reception on as many channels as possible. The quality of each channel varied considerably, as you can imagine – multipath was so bad on some channels that it was difficult to get any reliable NTSC signals.

I then did channel scans with both the V-Tune Pro HD and the HDTV-GT, to see how many signals locked up both receivers. MPEG stream analysis was also done with the HDTV-GT and TSReader Pro, so I could check modulation errors. The results were surprising, to say the least.

The active DTV stations I was trying to receive included WNYE-24, WNBC-28, WPXN-30, WPIX-33, WNJU-36, WWOR-38, WXTV-40, WNYW-44, WABC-45, WNJM-51, WCBS-56, and WNET-61. Some of these stations have very strong signals, and I can pick ‘em up at home, 65 miles away in eastern Pennsylvania. Others aren’t quite as loud.

Figures 1a-b. Radio Shack’s 15-1874 “budget” VHF/UHF indoor antenna in a formal pose (top) and in action (bottom).

RADIO SHACK 15-1874

This antenna is about as simple as it gets. It consists of a small plastic base with a metal bottom, a thin-wire UHF loop that snaps into place, and a pair of thread-on, telescoping VHF rabbit ears. The 15-1874 is the kind of antenna many folks might use with NTIA DTV converter boxes, to replace their old, broken rabbit ears.

After peaking for best analog reception, I did a channel scan and was able to pull in 7 of 13 stations currently broadcasting digital TV signals from the Empire State Building, 4 Times Square, or other locations. For what it’s worth, two of the stations that didn’t make the grade (WNJU-36 and WNJM-51) currently broadcast from towers in New Jersey, and were just too weak to be picked up even though I spotted ‘em on the analyzer.

Figure 2a. Qualcomm’s MediaFLO service on UHF channel 55 (left waveform) and WCBS-DT on channel 56 (right waveform), as received by the 15-1874.

Figure 2b. DTV waveforms from WNYW-44 (left) and WABC-45 (right), as grabbed by the Radio Shack antenna. Note the strong tilt on WABC’s signal.

Figure 2c. WWOR’s digital signal on channel 38 was problematic, and that big notch in the middle of the 8VSB waveform was the reason – it kept fluctuating up and down.

Of the remaining stations, one (WNET-61) is operating with very low power and is beaming its signal west towards Newark, NJ – its city of license. I could see it on the analyzer, but it was just too weak to pull in. (WNET will go back to VHF channel 13 after the analog shutdown, and should be plenty strong in the metro NY area, based on tests conducted in early January.)

The other two stations (WPXN-30 and WWOR-38) just had tricky multipath that the RS-1874 couldn’t do anything about. After all, it’s basically a dipole antenna on UHF with little directivity. I don’t expect the rabbit ears to make that much difference with high-band VHF channels, either. Still, for $12, this antenna did a fine job and is a low-cost solution for city dwellers that live 10 or fewer miles from the transmitter site(s).

Figure 3a-b. RCA’s ANT1450B in a beauty shot (top) and on the front line (bottom).

RCA ANT1450B

I’d tested the non-amplified version of this antenna (ANT1500) back in the late summer, and found it wanting for indoor reception at my location. The ANT1450B also uses a similar etched strip-line VHF/UHF antenna design, but included an in-line amplifier module to boost overall signals levels.

Given that my home location is 23 miles and over a hill to the Philadelphia antenna farm, I figured the New York location would be a kinder test of the RCA’s abilities. Once again, I positioned it near one of the windows and peaked it for best NTSC reception, and then did a channel scan.

Figure 4a. WCBS’ digital signal on channel 56 was a real challenge for the ANT1450B.

Figure 4b. WNYW-44 (left) and WABC-45 (right) looked a bit better through the RCA antenna.

Figure 4c. WNYE-24 had a booming signal at the reception location.

The results? Without the companion amplifier, the ANT1450B pulled in 6 of the 13 available DTV stations, once again skipping WNET-61. It also missed WPXN-30, WNJU-36, WWOR-38, WFUT-53, and WCBS-56. This antenna is just as non-directional as the 15-1874, and equally susceptible to multipath. With re-positioning, I was able to pull in WCBS-56, but dropped WABC-45 and WPIX-33.

Adding the amplifier accomplished two things. First, I was now able to add WFUT-53 and WCBS-56 to my original list, although the latter channel showed “hits” now and then. Second (and unfortunately), the noise floor on VHF channels 7 through 13 was elevated by 20 dB! That’s not a good development, and one that spells trouble for WABC, WPIX, and WNET when they go back to their original high-band VHF channels 7, 11, and 13, respectively.

Figure 5a-b. Terk’s HDTVa antenna looks aerodynamic just sitting still (top) and like it’s ready for takeoff when in use (bottom).

TERK HDTVa

This antenna continues to impress me, although its UHF section isn’t much of a mystery – it’s the Antiference Silver Sensor, coupled to an internal amplifier. The VHF element is a bit more pedestrian, with a pair of telescoping rabbit ears. They are robustly built, though.

After waiting for the usual channel scan, I discovered both the Aurora and OnAir receivers had logged 12 of 13 DTV stations (nope, still no sign of WNET-61). More importantly, only two (WPIX-33 and WPXN-30) showed any signs of “hits” from time to time. Impressively, I could now watch WNJU-36 and WNJM-51, previously missing in action.

Figure 6a. WWOR-38 came in beautifully through the HDTVa.

Figure 6b. WNBC-28’s 8VSB waveform, although ragged, was rock-steady with the Terk.

Figure 6c. WNYW-44 and WABC-45 looked best with the HDTVa.

Although the HDTVa is vastly more directional than either the Radio Shack or RCA designs, its performance could be even better if it had a reflector behind its rear element. WPIX’ channel 33 waveform showed some pretty funky notches, and WPXN could have used a bit more signal overall. I also noticed hits on other channels that seemed to be tied to the passage of busses and trucks in the street below, but these primarily affected upper UHF channels (53, 56) that won’t be in use after June 12.

As well as the HDTVa performed, it also raised the high-band VHF noise floor by 20 dB or so, indicating the presence of some type of broadband RF emitter nearby. Perhaps that was a computer, or a security system sensor. (I’ve even seen high-band VHF RF emissions from a hand-held HD camcorder, believe it or not!)

Figure 7a. Here’s what the normal nose floor looked like underneath VHF channels 7, 9, 11, and 13.

Figure 7b. And here’s what the RCA and Terk amplifiers did to it – raise it up by 20 dB!

Figure 8. Aurora Multimedia’s V-Tune Pro HD did a creditable job pulling in the test DTV signals.

CONCLUSIONS

My tests at this site aren’t yet complete, and another round of testing will include antennas with improved directivity to help minimize multipath. But if I had to go with one of the test antennas, I’d pick the Terk HDTVa. It did the best overall job on UHF DTV and analog VHF signals, and the internal amplifier (although not a low-noise design) does make a difference – plus, it works a lot better than the in-line amp module RCA ships with their ANT1450B.

I was very impressed at how well the RS 15-1874 worked, but given its traditional design, a lot of the credit must go to the OnAir HDTV-GT and Aurora’s V-Tune Pro. Stand-along HDTV set-top boxes are getting harder to find these days, and one that’s integrator-ready like the V-Tune Pro are rare. It works very well, and its receiver is even a bit better with tricky signals than the Gen 5 HDTV, now two years old.

As for RCA’s ANT1450B, it would appear to work best in a location where it has a clear shot towards a transmitting antenna. Handling multipath is not its strong suit, but what can you expect from what amounts to a pair of folded loop antennas, mounted inside of each other’s radius? I’d skip the in-line amplifier unless you live in a less congested area – too much garbage gets pulled in and winds up degrading the noise figure of the receiver.

Radio Shack 15-1874

Budget VHF/UHF Indoor Antenna

MSRP: $11.99

http://tinyurl.com/2ml5re

 

RCA ANT1450B

Amplified VHF/UHF Indoor Antenna

MSRP: $49.95

http://tinyurl.com/b7ksnr

 

Terk HDTVa

Amplified VHF/UHF Indoor Antenna

MSRP: $59.95

http://tinyurl.com/arntk