Posts Tagged ‘Mohu Leaf’

Product Review: ClearStream Eclipse TV Antenna

It’s been a while since I reviewed my last batch of TV antennas, but the topic is worth revisiting with the ongoing spectrum auction and an apparent increase in cord-cutting as people ditch more costly pay TV packages for free, off-air reception of broadcast TV channels.

Plus, in case you hadn’t noticed, the Olympics are under way and NBC has saturated the airwaves with coverage across a multitude of channels, including Telemundo. That means you may be able to watch events on two broadcast channels in addition to streaming channels.

A couple of weeks ago, the folks at Antennas Direct sent me one of their ClearStream Eclipse antennas. ($59.99, various retailers) It’s shaped like a big loop, is flexible, and has a black finish on one side and white on the other. Plus, the surface is known as SureGrip and will stick to just about any surface, over and over again.

The ClearStream Eclipse loop antenna and amplifier.

The ClearStream Eclipse loop antenna and amplifier. ($59.99)

Like other ClearStream antennas I’ve tested, the loop appears to be optimized for UHF reception. And that could be problematic, since the FCC may wind up taking away at least 10 (if not more) UHF channels after the spectrum auction, assuming the bids are successful.

That, in turn, may force more than a few TV stations back onto high-band VHF and (horrors!) even low-band VHF channels if they want to stay on the air. And digital TVs need much larger antennas to pick up broadcasts on channels 2 through 6, unless you’re located fairly close to the TV transmitter and the signal levels are very high.

ClearStream has also included an inline amplifier to boost signal levels. Technically, it qualifies as an antenna-mounted amplifier, although you can place it anywhere ahead of the TV or set-top box receiver. This amplifier does make a big difference, as you’ll see in a moment.

THE TESTS

For the purposes of this review, I went into my lab and fished out my trusty Radio Shack bow tie antenna (not available anymore, but it cost all of $4 back in the day) and also a spare Mohu Leaf antenna; both for comparison. I also grabbed an “anonymous” inline, 15 dB VHF/UHF preamplifier that would normally mount on a mast but was quite happy sitting on the floor.

I also set up a crude antenna support – a shipping box from a well-known retailer of just about anything electronic in New York City. I taped each antenna to the box (which was standing on its end) and placed the box atop a perch my cats use to look out the window.

The ClearStream Eclipse under test. Note the high-tech mounting surface...

The ClearStream Eclipse under test. Note the high-tech mounting surface…

 

My well-traveled, well-worn Radio Shack bow tie antenna, under test.

My well-traveled, well-worn Radio Shack bow tie antenna, under test.

 

And to round things out, a Mohu Leaf joins the fun.

And to round things out, a Mohu Leaf joins the fun.

This box was positioned near the window in an upstairs room, facing in the general direction of the Philadelphia DTV antenna farm. I operated much as the average TV viewer would – I didn’t know exactly where to aim the antennas, but used consumer DTV sites to use dead reckoning and hoped for the best. 20’ of RG-59/U cable ran from each teat antenna back to a two-way splitter, feeding a spectrum analyzer and my Hauppauge Aero-M USB stick DTV receiver.

I connected each antenna and scanned for VHF and UHF channels three times – once without any amplification, once with my ‘anonymous’ amp, and once with the ClearStream amplifier. I captured spectral waveforms for selected channels on the analyzer and also ran a quick MPEG stream analysis using TS Reader.

The stations I looked for were in order WPVI (ABC, channel 6), WBPH (IND, channel 9), WHYY (PBS, channel 12), WPHL (My, channel 17), KYW (CBS, channel 26), WUVP (Univision, channel 29), WPSG (CW, channel 32), WCAU (NBC, channel 34), WYBE (IND, channel 35), WTXF (FIX, channel 42), and WFMZ (IND, channel 46). Channels 9 and 46 originate from Allentown, PA; the rest come from the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, about 20+ miles from here over an obstructed path.

THE RESULTS

After compiling that data, I had a pretty good idea of how each antenna worked. The results can be seen in table 1, and once again, it’s pretty amazing how functional the bow tie is. Not a great performer without an amplifier, but with the ‘anonymous’ amplifier it grabbed 9 of the 11 stations, including WPVI on channel 6. It performed even better with the Eclipse amplifier, pulling in 10 of 11 stations. (WTXF-42 reception was erratic.)

Mohu’s time-tested Leaf was next. As a solo act, it sniffed out 5 of 11 stations and also found WPVI without amplification, so its low-band VHF performance was good. Adding the ‘anonymous’ amplifier improved the score to 8 out of 11, and switching to the Eclipse amplifier added one more station. This was the only antenna to pull in WTXF-42 reliably, using amplification.

Finally, it was time for the Eclipse to take its turn. Riding bareback, the Eclipse tied the Leaf and snared 5 of 11 stations – but not WPVI-6. Adding in the ‘anonymous’ amplifier improved its score to 9 up and 2 down, while switching to the Eclipse amplifier resulted in one less receivable station (WPSG-32, which is a bear to pull in at any time). But I could not receive WPVI in any of the three modes.

The UHF TV spectrum, using the Eclipse and its companion amplifier.

The UHF TV spectrum, using the Eclipse and its companion amplifier.

 

Here's the UHF TV spectrum as seen by the bow tie antenna, also using the Eclipse amplifier.

Here’s the UHF TV spectrum as seen by the bow tie antenna, also using the Eclipse amplifier.

 

And here's what the Mohu Leaf saw, using the Eclipse amplifier to pull in UHF TV channels.

And here’s what the Mohu Leaf saw, using the Eclipse amplifier to pull in UHF TV channels.

 

WPVI (ABC) on channel 6, as received by the ClearStream Eclipse with amplifier. Or should i say, 'not received.' (the tall carriers to the right of channel 6 are FM stations.)

WPVI (ABC) on channel 6, as received by the ClearStream Eclipse with amplifier. Or should I say, ‘not received.’ (the tall carriers to the right of channel 6 are FM stations.)

 

Here's how WPVI-6 looks coming through the bow tie antenna, also using the Eclipse amplifier. This setup worked very well.

Here’s how WPVI-6 looks coming through the bow tie antenna, also using the Eclipse amplifier. This setup worked very well.

 

WPVI also came in reliably using the Mohu Leaf with the Eclipse amplifier.

WPVI also came in reliably using the Mohu Leaf with the Eclipse amplifier.

 

And the spectrum analyzer grabs show why. WPVI’s 8VSB waveform is at least 20 dB above the noise floor with either amplifier, and actually closer to 32 dB C/N when you add the correction factor for this resolution bandwidth. Using the Eclipse, channel 6 measures only 10 db C/N (22 dB with correction factor) using the ‘anonymous’ amplifier and barely 14 dB C/N (26 dB with correction) using the Eclipse amplifier.

That’s just not strong enough for reliable reception, especially when you see the 6 dB notch in WPVI’s carrier from multipath. There’s also about 6 dB of multipath tilt through the Leaf, but the overall signal is much stronger and well within the range that can be corrected by adaptive equalization. And the cleanest signal was seen with the bow tie – not as strong as the leaf, but minimal tilt and notching and easy for the TV to demodulate.

Based on my measurements, the inline Eclipse amplifier has somewhere between 18 and 20 dB of signal gain, and lo and behold, that’s what it says in the dual-side instruction sheet. No specification was given for noise figure, but it appears to be about 2 dB in the UHF TV band, based on my noise floor measurements (-88 without, -86 with).

CONCLUSIONS

Table 1. Here is how each antenna/amplifier combination performed in my tests.

Table 1. Here is how each antenna/amplifier combination performed in my tests.

The ClearStream Eclipse is certainly small and can go just about anywhere – and it’s not likely you’ll damage it, given how flexible the housing is. This loop antenna is a decent performer with UHF and high-band VHF signals, but just doesn’t have enough gain for reliable low-band VHF TV reception.

That may not be a problem if you don’t have any low-band V’s in your area, but you should check TVFool.com in any case as we’re starting to see lots of low-power repeaters and independent stations lighting up on channels 2 through 6 all across the country. One of those stations could be your ticket to watching a TV network you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

The Mohu Leaf did a better job with channel 6, but was no better in overall station count unamplified. And connected to an amplifier, the bow tie gave both the Leaf and Eclipse a run for their money. With the Eclipse amplifier, it was a dead heat between the Leaf and bow tie (10-1 scores), with the Leaf locking in WTXF-42 and the bow tie securing the difficult WPSG-32.

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.

The Front Line: Four From Pepcom

Last Thursday (11/15), the Hammerstein Ballroom on 34th Street in New York City was full of tango dancers, Argentine wine, good food – and some interesting products that will get plenty of exposure at January’s International CES.

Pepcom puts on this show several times a year, rotating between the midtown location and the Metropolitan Ballroom on 18th Street.  It’s a chance to get a much more “up close and personal” look at many cutting-edge CE products that would be tough to seek out at larger trade shows.

The November event featured a slew of interesting products from the latest Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners to high-efficiency LED lighting panels and super-dense flash memory sticks and drives. But there were four products in particular that caught my attention.

Lenovo’s IdeaTab Lynx is a clever, hybrid tablet/notebook concept.

Lenovo had a demonstration of its first tablet computer; complete with a snap-on full-size keyboard (the attachment is magnetic). It’s called the IdeaTab Lynx, and is a pretty cool product. The keyboard, which is actually a dock, weighs about 1.5 pounds, and the 11.6-inch screen/tablet comes in just below that. The tablet/screen has a resolution of 1366×768 pixels and employs a 5-point capacitive multi-touch system.

Other features include a 2 MP front camera, 2 GB of DRAM, 32 GB or 64 GB of eMMC storage, and stereo speakers. The IdeaTab Lynx runs Windows 8 from an Intel ATOM dual-core 1.8 GHz processor and battery life is estimated at eight hours for the tablet and another eight hours from the dock. Lenovo has a suggested starting price of $599 for the tablet and another $150 for the keyboard/dock.

Across the aisle, Vizio had its new 70-inch LCD TV set up for inspection. The E701i-A3 Razor LED has all of the usual bells and whistles you’d expect in this size class, including built-in WiFi, a “smart” remote with full QWERTY keyboard, and an extremely slim bezel. Vizio claims the viewable area on this TV is 69.51 inches, and it uses 10-bit signal processing.

Of course, the E701i-A3 comes with Vizio Apps, including access to Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, and Vudu (which together constitute about 85% of all Internet video traffic). Taking a look at the panel, I noticed a resemblance in off-axis performance to Sharp’s 70-inch Aquos and I wouldn’t be surprised if Vizio is sourcing the panel from Sharp. The target MSRP is $1,999, which is where Sharp’s 70-inch Aquos was selling in late January of 2012.

Is this really a Sharp Aquos in Vizio clothing? Could be…

 

The B&N Nook HD+ adds to an already overcrowded market for tablets, but is competitively priced.

 

Next to Vizio, I found the folks from Barnes & Noble showing off their latest Nook tablets – the 7-inch Nook HD and the 9-inch Nook HD+. B&N has come a long way in two years from the original Nook reader, and the product migration appears to be towards do-it-all tablets instead of basic readers. (Nook’s Color tablet reader is still in the line, but apparently will be phased out.)

The Nook HD uses a 1440×900 pixel LCD display and is available with 8 GB ($199) or 16 GB ($229) internal flash memory. It runs a Dual-Core 1.3 GHz OMAP4470 processor and the Android OS. I noticed there is support for Google Office, meaning that Microsoft Office documents can be opened and worked on with this tablet. Battery life is rated at 10.5 hours for reading and 9 hours for video.

The Nook HD+ moves up to a 9-inch screen with 1920×1280 (WUXGA) resolution and comes with 16 Gb ($269) or 32 GB ($299) of internal memory. It employs the same processor and OS as the 7-inch tablet and has similar battery life. I found both tablets very bright and contrasty under the overhead spotlights used in the ballroom, and reflection from the LCD screen was minimal. Alas; there’s still no place to make an external display connection like there is on the iPads.

Mohu has decided it’s spending too much time indoors! This Sky HDTV antenna is the result.

Finally, I ventured to the back of the room by the wine bar and ran into the folks from Mohu. Regular readers will recall my frequent tests of indoor TV antennas earlier this year; a competition that Mohu generally won or tied for first place. The news this year is a re-design of the Leaf Plus into the Leaf Ultimate, with the preamplifier now encased in a separate module. You can also buy this preamp by itself as the Jolt Amplifier.

That re-design allowed Mohu to simplify its manufacturing process – just add the Jolt module to an existing Mohu Leaf and you have an Ultimate model. But Mohu isn’t done there: They’ve also unveiled a new outdoor TV antenna that closely resembles a crossed dipole, used by many antenna manufacturers. The Sky HDTV is designed for mast-mounting on a roof or in an attic, and will also work with the Jolt amplifier. No prices have been announced yet.

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 DTV Antennas Revisited

Last month, I tested a pile of wall-mounted indoor digital TV antennas to see if they really work as advertised.  Two of them (Mohu’s Leaf and the Walltenna) performed decently, while the amplified LeafPlus was a clear winner.

On the other hand, Winegard’s FlatWave was a disappointment, as it didn’t perform any better than a $4.00 Radio Shack bow tie antenna. That result led to a request from Winegard to return the review sample and see if it was defective.

It was, according to Winegard’s National Sales Manager, Grant Whipple. The culprit was (according to their email) “…a screw that was stripping and then causing a loss of contact between our circuit board and the antenna element itself.” Apparently this was an early production run issue.

Fair enough. Grant soon had a replacement back to me. Meanwhile, Scott Kolbe, who handles PR for Antennas Direct, sensed an opportunity and sent me a sample of their Micron XG indoor amplified TV antenna to test drive. The Micron XG isn’t a flexible, thin wall-mount design, but it is an indoor antenna and I decided to test it alongside the Winegard.

The Micron XG 'stuck' to the window. I never expected this to work -- but it did.

 

Here's what the Clearstream Micron XG amplifier looks like up close.

The tests, as before, were conducted at the offices of Turner Engineering in Mountain Lakes, NJ. I stopped by there after some RF interference testing in midtown New York City the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, and John Turner and I had the run of the place – everyone had gone home for the weekend.

To make things more interesting, I brought along the Mohu Leaf Plus, the original RS bow tie antenna, and my spectrum analyzer and digital camera.

THE TEST

John and I followed the same test procedure as we did in April. Each antenna was taped to the window with masking tape in the same position. A channel scan was performed with a DTV receiver (this time, it was Samsung’s DTB-H260F) and we verified dropout-free reception for 1 minute on each channel to qualify it as “received.” I also recorded the transport stream from each channel to check for bit error rates (BER) and recorded screen grabs of the actual waveforms for comparison among antennas.

Things started off again with the bow tie, which pulled in (unamplified) seven stations, all operating on UHF channels. The strongest local stations were WMBC-18 in Upper Montclair, NJ, and WNJM-51; also on the same tower. But the bow tie also snagged WNBC-28, WFUT-30, WPXN-31, and WXTV-40 from the Empire State Building, along with WFME-29 from West Orange, NJ. All seven stations were received reliably on the Samsung tuner.

Next up was the replacement Winegard FlatWave. After a channel scan, it also snagged seven stations including WNJB-8 (high band VHF!), WMBC-18, WNBC-28, WCBS-33, WXTV-40, and the 2nd minor channel from WNYW-44 (virtual channel 5-2). Of course, WNJM-51 also came in with no sweat.

 

Here's how WMBC-18 looked on the Winegard FlatWave antenna...

 

...and here's how the same station looked on the $4 Radio Shack bow tie antenna.

 

In essence, it was a draw between the $40 FlatWave and $4 bow tie. The FlatWave did pull in a high band VHF station, something the bow tie could not do reliably. But the bow tie snagged three UHF stations that the Flat Wave couldn’t reel in, one of which (WFME-29) was very strong on other antennas.

Just for kicks, I hooked up the original Mohu Leaf and let it do its thing. The result was nine reliable UHF channels, adding WNJU-36 and WWOR-38 to the previous lists. Catastrophe struck with the Leaf Plus, though – even though its power indicator LED was lit, absolutely ZERO signal passed through to the analyzer. It was cooked!

 

Here's what the UHF TV spectrum looks like with the amplified Micron XG...

 

...and here's how the same block of channels appeared with the amplified Mohu Leaf (not the Mohu Plus).

 

By itself, the Clear Stream Micron XG reached out and grabbed six UHF stations – WMBC-18, WNBC-28, WFME-29, WCBS-33, WXTV-40, and WNYW-44’s ’5-2’ service. WNJM-51 finished off the list. Not bad, but hardly an improvement over the bow tie. Adding the inline preamp netted three more UHF stations – WFUT-30, WPXN-31, and WCBS-33, putting the Micron XG on a par with Mohu’s basic Leaf. One caution – the in-line amplifier lets you kick in 5, 10, 15, or 20 dB of signal boost, but you need to use it sparingly – otherwise, you’ll ‘swamp’ your TV and create a lot of noise across the band.

Since the Micron XG preamp is a standalone product and works with its own power supply, we decided to have some fun and try it with the rest of the antennas. Hooked up to the bow tie, it delivered WNJB’s channel 8 beacon, plus WNYW-44’s ‘5-2’ service (whatever happened to 5-1?) and WWOR-38. Cool!

The FlatWave also benefited from additional amplification, pulling in ten different stations (WNYE-24 was the newcomer). But so did the Mohu Leaf, which snatched eleven different DTV stations, one of which was WNJB on highband VHF channel 8.  The table below summarizes the results for what are the nine strongest DTV station signals that could be received during the test. Each station’s call sign is followed by its physical channel.

 

THE RESULTS

A few solid conclusions came out of this re-test. First, the Mohu Leaf is still a formidable contender, amplified or otherwise.  Even though it doesn’t have much gain at highband VHF frequencies (channels 7-13), it also managed to pull in channel 8 with a boost from the Micron XG amplifier. (I’m still checking on what happened to the Leaf Plus.)

Second, I didn’t see much of a difference between the defective FlatWave and its replacement. True; the 2nd model fared somewhat better than its predecessor. But in terms of total stations, it didn’t do any better than the humble bow tie – it just substituted three different stations.

The Micron XG – which we actually wound up taping to the window for the test, using LOTs of masking tape – was a pretty weak performer without its accessory amplifier. However; with the amplifier, it was able to haul in three additional stations. But the Leaf did even better when amplified, capturing a test-high 11 stations reliably, one more than the FlatWave when it had a dance with the external amplifier.

Compiling the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ results into won-lost records, the Mohu Leaf finished in first place at 7-2 competing in the ‘no amplifier’ class, with a three-way tie at 6-3. In the ‘amplified’ division, the Leaf and FlatWave tied with 8-1 records, just head of the 7-2 Micron XG. (I didn’t list the amplified bow tie here, but it finished in 3rd place with a 6-3 log.)

How about performance vs. value? The Leaf is currently advertised on the Mohu Web site for $36, while the FlatWave is ticketed at $40. The ClearStream Micron XG will set you back $100 (the unamplified Micron A version is $60), while the humble bow tie is (gasp!) no longer listed on the Radio Shack Web site. (I guess it makes no sense to sell a $4 antenna when you can push a $20 Terk version that looks cooler.)

CONCLUSION

You don’t need to spend a ton of money to get decent DTV reception. In fact, you should be in good shape for no more than $40, based on my tests. If signal levels are really low, the amplified models will make a difference. Based on my tests, I’d suggest sticking with the Leaf Plus, as it is $25 cheaper than the Micron XG – and a lot easier to mount to a variety of surfaces, given how light and flexible it is.

And isn’t it amazing just how well a bare-bones antenna works? Higher cost doesn’t always equal higher performance. Caveat Emptor!