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Cut the cord with an HDTV antenna

If you live in an area where signals are relatively strong, there's a bevy of effective antennas that earn praise from experts and users. Though results vary based on how far you are from the broadcast towers, what channels your local broadcasters use, topography, intervening obstacles such as trees and buildings, and phases of the moon (we are kidding about the last one, though judging by the reviews we see, maybe not so much), we are naming the Mohu Leaf 30 (Est. $35) as the Best Reviewed HDTV antenna for most individuals. This is the middle model in Mohu's series of flat antennas. Other options include the Mohu Leaf 50 (Est. $60), which includes a low-noise amplifier to boost the Leaf's range from 30 miles to 50 miles, at least theoretically, and the Mohu Leaf Metro (Est. $20), a half-sized version designed for use in metro areas with strong signal levels.

Best indoor HDTV antenna

Mohu Leaf 30
Mohu Leaf 30

Regardless of the model, the Mohu Leaf has its strongest performance on the UHF bands, where most HDTV signals can be found. It's also a decent performer with high-band VHF channels (7-13). Performance with low-band VHF (channels 2-6) is pretty spotty, but that's true of many HDTV antennas and relatively few locations have broadcasters that use those channels.

If aesthetics are a concern, the Leaf rates a thumbs-up in reviews. It places the antenna's receiving elements within a thin plastic laminate. Installation is simple as it can just be tacked up on a wall (pushpins are included). One side is black and the other white, and it's paintable if neither of those options work with your décor. The super-thin design is also easy to hide. While the company suggests placing the antenna behind a picture, several reviewers say they placed the Leaf behind their sets.

In terms of performance, the all three versions of the Leaf hold their own and even beat some more expensive options in comparative tests. All have been put through their paces by Peter Putman at HDTVExpert.com, and all earn good feedback there. The Leaf 50, with its amplifier, does a little better job pulling in challenging stations in tests, but could also be overkill for some users. Tom's Guide's Mike Kobrin notes that the Mohu Jolt Amplifier (Est. $30) that's included with the Leaf 50 is also sold separately. "You could also start with the Leaf 30 and buy the Jolt later for $30 if you need the boost," he suggests.

Though it's only a good match for areas where signals are the strongest, Tom's Guide names the Metro as the Editor's Choice among non-amplified HDTV antennas. Putnam is a fan as well: "I'd recommend this one for city dwellers, and you shouldn't need any additional amplification," he says. User reviews are also relatively positive for an indoor HDTV antenna -- 3.8 stars for the three versions combined after more than 10,000 user reviews at Amazon.com -- but they also indicate that the Leaf isn't a miracle worker. If other indoor-antenna designs won't work at your location, the odds are slim that the Leaf will do significantly better.

With the success of the Leaf, it's not surprising that other manufacturers have released similar antennas. One example is the Winegard FlatWave series. It's available in versions that correspond to the offerings in the Leaf line, including the amplified Winegard FlatWave Amped (Est. $60), the unamplified Winegard FlatWave (Est. $35) and the urban-dweller oriented, Wineguard FlatWave Micro (Est. $22). Some reviews reference a semi-clear frosted plastic aesthetic, but the current version mimics (again) the Leaf's reversible black/white design. While Tom's Guide finds that the FlatWave Amped performs a little bit better than the Leaf 50 in its test locations, Putnam at HDTVExpert.com calls it a coin flip. "Use either of these if you are 15 – 30 miles out from the TV transmitters and have a reasonably clear reception path," he says.

While the Leaf and similar flat antennas look like the best bet for many users, that design is far from your only choice. One alternative is the Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse (Est. $40). The Eclipse eschews the "mud flap" design of flat antennas like the Leaf. Instead, it's a flexible tapered loop -- a variation on the tried-and-true loop antennas that have been a mainstay for UHF reception over the years. It may provide okay performance for VHF stations, particularly high-band ones, but best results will be seen with UHF signals. Installation is easy thanks to its "Sure Grip" technology that will adhere to any flat surface, yet allows for the antenna to be detached and repositioned as needed. "Simply peel off the protective backing and stick it on a window. Or wall. (Or an annoying relative who's fallen asleep on the couch.)," Putnam says.

Reviews are largely -- but not uniformly -- strong. The Eclipse is named the top indoor HDTV antenna at TheWireCutter.com. Though the full results of its testing were still to be posted at the time of this report, Tim Moynihan notes that "In our new tests, which included reception locations in both a suburb of Philadelphia and within New York City, the Antennas Direct Eclipse pulled in all our target channels easily." Like the Leaf, the Eclipse is also available in an amplified version (Est. $60); both are tested and both yield good results. In light of that, Moynihan suggests starting with the unamped version first, adding the inline amp, available on its own for around $20, if needed. The amplified version of the Eclipse also enjoys a mostly favorable review at The-Gadgeteer.com, but Kathleen Chapman notes that placement for best results can be very finicky. Putnam is the least satisfied. He tries the amped version and finds it to be a disappointment, pulling in fewer stations than most other antennas. User reviews are limited -- we saw just under 35 at BestBuy.com for the unamplified version, but with a promising rating of 4.4 stars.

The antennas profiled above work decently to very well under most reception conditions, but will be utter failures where things are more challenging. City dwellers typically enjoy terrific signal strength but disappointing results because reception in areas with lots of tall buildings can be compromised by multipath interference -- weaker reflections of the main signal that come from multiple directions as a result of bouncing off of large structures or other obstacles. With analog signals, multipath interference typically shows up as image ghosts, but it can render digital signals completely unusable. Using a highly directional antenna can greatly minimize multipath problems, though it could mean lots of repositioning if the TV signals at your location come in from transmitters located in different directions.

If multipath is a problem, the Terk HDTVa (Est. $60) could be the solution. It uses a high-gain, highly-directional log-periodic design for UHF reception, and simple rabbit ears to cover the VHF bands. It generally fairs well in expert reviews -- though most are now older as the HDTVa (also known as the Terk LOGTVA) has been around for quite a few years now. Owner reviews are a bit mixed, as are those for many indoor antennas. The directionality, which is a necessity for some reception situations, becomes a bane for some users who complain that they need to fuss with the HDTVa more than they'd like.

A retro antenna could do the trick

In the days of analog TV, rabbit ears for VHF and a loop antenna for UHF were ubiquitous. Believe it or not, that design remains a good choice for locations where signal strength is very strong -- and may be a top choice in those few locales where low-band VHF channels (2-6) are still in use.

There are a number of largely similar antennas that use this design, and most will work similarly -- for better or worse. Antennas like these are bidirectional, meaning reception is strongest from the front and back but weaker for signals received from the sides, so you might need to do a little fiddling or repositioning for different channels.

With that caveat in mind, the RCA Indoor FM and HDTV Antenna (Est. $7) looks like a good choice. That antenna, also sold as the RCA Basic Indoor Antenna and the RCA ANT111, gets largely decent reviews at sites like Amazon.com, though there are also lots of complaints regarding flimsy construction quality as well as disappointing reception performance -- par for the course with antennas at this price point.

The rabbit ears part of the design (these are technically called a dipole antenna) work better for low band VHF than most other indoor designs -- and are incorporated in some higher end antennas (such as the HDTVa) to handle that part of the broadcasting spectrum. There's not much to say about the loop antenna save that the ones in modern versions of these antennas have been slightly modified so that reception is peaked for the lower part of the UHF spectrum, where digital signals are currently found.

Finally, if you live in a very strong signal area and don't have low-band VHF to worry about, there's another retro antenna worth considering -- the lowly bow tie antenna. In test after test at HDTVExpert.com, Peter Putnam finds that a simple bow tie holds its own against -- and often beats -- fancier, pricier antennas. "The most surprising thing I learned from this round of tests was that the cheapest antenna – the bow tie – was also the most reliable," he says. Though designed for UHF, it even performs credibly for high-band VHF (channels 7-13) reception in Putnam's tests.

Though once found everywhere, bow tie antennas are now near impossible to find at retail. We did find one, however, the Steren UHF Bow Tie TV Antenna (Est. $3), available from SummitSource.com as well as eBay. It includes the needed adapter to convert the spade lugs of the antenna (we did say retro, didn't we?) to a coaxial fitting that will mate with the antenna input on a modern TV. Designed to clip onto old-style rabbit ears, mounting will otherwise need to be more creative -- or not as Putnam just tapes his to the side of a cardboard box. "OK, the bow tie doesn't look like much, but it will give you hours of enjoyment – much more than a $3.99 latte macchiato!" he says.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best TV Antennas | Best Indoor/Outdoor HDTV Antennas | Buying Guide | Our Sources

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TERK Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $49.99
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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RCA Indoor FM and HDTV Antenna
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $5.99
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Mohu Jolt TV Antenna Amplifier MH-110569
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $29.99
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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ClearStream Eclipse Indoor HDTV Antenna with Sure Grip Technology - 25 Mile Range
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $49.99 $49.97   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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