Useful Gadgets: TERK Omni and Turbo Indoor DTV Antennas

I have to give Terk credit for continuing to roll out innovative designs for indoor and outdoor TV antennas.  Going all the way back to 1998, when I tested my first Terk design, there have been some pretty interesting-looking products in their line (not to mention some strange ones, too!).

Unfortunately, the performance of these antennas hasn’t always matched up to their looks, and the new Omni and Turbo indoor models aren’t breaking that mold any time soon. The bar that any indoor TV antenna must overcome is pretty high: They must have gain at the specific frequencies; enough of it to overcome multipath distortion and echoes – a given indoors – and also to provide a sufficiently-high signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio so that reception is free of drop-outs.

The Omni (model OMNITWR, no price yet) is a black plastic tower that stands about a foot tall and has a blue LED illuminating ring on the bottom. Terk calls this an “amplified multi-directional HDTV antenna” which “receives 4K Ultra HD Broadcast” (never mind that there aren’t any yet) and “Supports 1080p.” The packaging goes on to promote free HDTV from the familiar networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CW, PBS, and Univision) and proclaims it is “a great compliment to streaming players.”

Well, Terk and I agree on that last point, at least. Free off-air digital TV is a great compliment to streaming channels. If you can get CBS off-air, why pay $8 a month for it? For sports fans, there are still quite a few marquee events that are broadcast on free channels, and for ‘retro’ fans, more and more secondary minor channels like Antenna TV, Comet, and MeTV are full of classic old TV shows (many in thrilling black and white!) from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and even the 1980s.

Elsa can’t figure out if the Omni is a scratching post or not.

As for Terk’s other claims; antennas pull in RF signals, such as TV channels. Those channels can carry digital information in the ATSC format in the U.S. or in the DVB format used elsewhere in the world. The demodulated broadcast signal can be standard definition (480i) or HD (720p and 1080i). It’s the TV that demodulates the signal, NOT the antenna – all the latter does is receive the RF channel.

So technically, the Omni (and any other indoor or outdoor antenna, for that matter) can receive 4K broadcasts. They could also receive 1080p HD broadcasts, although that format isn’t used by any television station. Yes, the $4.99 bow-tie antenna I use in all of my tests could also receive a 4K broadcast! (How’s that for mixing contemporary with retro?)

Terk’s Trinity Xtend Turbo antenna (Model WITRIAC, $129.99) is another indoor antenna design that is shaped like a book. You can lay it flat or mount in vertically for TV reception. But it does double duty as a WiFi extender, working with dual-band (2.4 and 5 GHz) systems that use the 802.11ac channel-bonding protocol. So you can watch TV and extend your WiFi range, too!

The shipping box touts “802.11ac up to 3X faster than 802.11an.” Well, that should be the case, as you can bond two, three, and even four channels in the 5 GHz band to increase data speeds, but that’s a WiFi protocol not related to DTV reception. As before, Terk claims this antenna will receive 4K broadcasts and supports 1080p, and we don’t need to go down that road again.

But there’s one additional claim that was hard to swallow: A reception range of 65 miles, which would be some manipulation of the laws of physics for such a small antenna! I’m hard-pressed to receive signals that far away using a combination 5-element VHF and 15-element UHF antenna system equipped with a 24 dB mast-mounted preamplifier. But I suppose it’s possible that reception over that distance might be possible if (1) you lived on a mountaintop with a long view to the horizon, (b) happened to be watching UHF TV channels during a tropospheric ducting event, or (c) were watching terrestrial TV on the international space station.

I tried the Trinity Xtend horizontally polarized…

…and vertically polarized.

ON THE TEST BENCH

All’s fair in love and war, so I decided to test both antennas against my reference bow tie antenna. There’s a sweet spot in my 2nd floor home office where DTV signals from Philadelphia are strong enough to be captured with an indoor antenna, so I ‘borrowed’ my cat’s elevated perch and use that to support all of the antennas. Just for fun, I dusted off an amplified Mohu Leaf to compare tests, and to provide a bit more ‘kick’ to the bow tie, I pulled out the Antennas Direct ClearStream JUICE preamp so that all antennas were playing on a more level field.

Each antenna was placed in the ‘nest’ and aimed for best-looking waveforms on a spectrum analyzer. Then, I scanned up and down the band to find which channels were received reliably, i.e. that is for at least a minute with no dropout. In the Philly market, we’ve got a couple of low-band VHF stations, a few high-band VHF broadcasters, and more than a few UHF signals that should be easily received.

Laugh if you want at this ancient antenna design, but it can run circles around upstarts!

 

Table 1. A comparison of all the antennas under test. None of them could pull in WTXF on channel 42.

Table 1 shows the results. I was quite surprised by how well the bow tie performed, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. This classic design more than holds its own repeatedly in tests against more expensive models with gimmicky packaging, and it’s over 60 years old. With the JUICE preamp, it pulled in eight out of ten stations, missing WBPH-9 and WTXF-42. (None of the antennas could help Fox’s signal, despite it looking pretty clean and strong on my analyzer.)

2nd place went to the UHF bow tie without the preamp, which hauled in seven stations. Not bad for $4.99! Mohu’s time-tested Leaf with external amplifier was right behind, providing reliable reception of six out of ten stations. Terk’s Omni was not up to the task even after I tried a second position for it, pulling in four out of ten stations the first time around and three of ten on the second try. In its defense, it did snag WLVT-39 from Allentown, which only the amplified bow tie could match.

Compact antenna designs will have trouble with low-band VHF reception.  KJWP-2 and WPVI-6, as picked up by the amplified bow tie…

…are basically ‘missing in action’ on the Terk Omni antenna.

As for the Trinity Xtend? Best to use it as a WiFi extender and forget about DTV reception altogether, unless you live very, very close to the transmitters. No matter which way I oriented it – vertically or horizontally – it could only pull in two stations reliably (WYBE-35 and WFMZ-46) and neither of them is affiliated with a major network. (So much for the claim of 65-mile reception.) My location is around 25 miles from the Roxborough TV towers and has moderate multipath, but not so much that the average indoor antenna can’t pull in at least five stations.

As for the WiFi extender part; it works quite well. I downloaded the Terk Extender app from Google Play and it didn’t take long to make the connection while following the app’s instructions, boosting 5 GHz signal strength by a few decibels in the farthest parts of my house. So you may still find that part of the product useful if you are strapped for range.

Terk’s Trinity Xtend created a ton of spectral noise on high-band VHF channels 7 through 13…

…that wasn’t seen at all when using the amplified Mohu Leaf.

Here are channels 17 through 46 as picked up by the amplified bow tie.

The same channels using the Terk Omni…

…and the Terk Trinity Xtend, lying flat (horizontally polarized).

CONCLUSION

As you’ve seen in previous tests, there are some really good indoor antennas for sale that won’t break the bank. Winegard and Mohu both offer indoor panel antennas (passive and amplified) that should pull in the majority of stations in your area if you are no more than 30 miles from the TV transmitters. Radio Shack doesn’t sell UHF bow ties anymore, but Amazon shows the ANTOP amplified bow tie for about $28 – a little pricey in my book, but having the amplifier is a plus.

There’s a catch, though. The recent FCC spectrum auction just concluded and it appears that all UHF channels above 38 will be re-allocated for other uses. This means there are plenty of TV stations that will have to relocate, and some of them will wind up in the noisy, harder-to-receive low-band VHF channels from 54 to 87 MHz. Antennas must have more and longer elements to work at these frequencies, so super-compact designs aren’t going to cut it in the future.

With that in mind, I can’t recommend either of the Terk models for indoor reception – not when a five-dollar piece of bent wire can outperform both of them. Oh well; better luck next time…