Cut the cord with an TV antenna
Due to the issues explained in the introduction to this report -- namely that because of different reception conditions, an antenna that works in one location could be a miserable performer in another, and vice versa -- naming the very best indoor HDTV antenna for all users is a challenge. However, with that caveat in mind, and based on the latest testing by credible experts, we are elevating the (Est. $60) to Best Reviewed status.
The Eclipse pops up at or near the top in many of the expert reviews we've seen. It's available in an unamplified version -- the (Est. $55) -- but the amplified version gets most of the attention and affection from reviewers. However, at Wirecutter, Grant Clauser finds that the amplifier can actually harm signals in areas where signal strength is already high -- a not unexpected finding, as noted in the Buying Guide elsewhere in this report. In light of that, he recommends trying the cheaper unamplified version if you live closer than 15 miles from the towers, keeping in mind that the ClearStream In-Line Amplifier (Est. $20) that's included in the amplified version is available separately if it turns out to be needed. Regardless, amplified or not, the Eclipse is named the top indoor HDTV antenna by Wirecutter.
Other experts largely fall in line. In testing at Top Ten Reviews, Jonathan Knoder notes that the amplified Eclipse received more channels than any of the other antennas tested, earning it a Gold Award. HDTVExpert.com's Peter Putman puts the amplified and non-amplified versions of the Eclipse through his battery of comprehensive testing as well. He doesn't gush over it the way some other reviewers do, but calls it a "decent performer" -- about on a par with many other antennas of its type. Adriane Maxwell at Home Theater Review concurs, saying that it is a very good antenna, with performance that's "on par with other indoor antennas I've tested," though she joins Wirecutter is saying that the amplifier did not appreciably improve things at her location.
The Eclipse eschews the "mud flap" design of flat antennas like the Channel Master Flatenna and Mohu Leaf (covered below). 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, and that also works relatively well with high band VHF (channels 7-13). However, if you have low band (channels 2-6) broadcasters you want to receive, you'll need to look elsewhere -- as Putman notes, the antenna "just doesn't have enough gain for reliable low-band VHF TV reception." If you are not sure what channels you can receive in your area, there are online resources, such as TV Fool, that can tell you what to expect, and what type of antenna you will need.
Installation is easy, thanks to the antenna's "sure grip" strips that lets the antenna "stick to just about any surface, over and over again," Putman says. Maxwell is a fan of the design as well, and notes that "You can literally hang it on a thumbtack once the Sure Grip strip loses its adhesion, and the long, detachable cable is very convenient." That's all helpful, because as Kathleen Chapman at The-Gadgeteer.com notes, placement (including cord placement) for best results can be very finicky. The Eclipse is double sided, white or black, to (sort of) fit with most decors. It can also be painted if you really want it to blend in with your color scheme.
User reviews are about what you'd expect with any indoor antenna, including a 4-star rating at Best Buy following more than 640 reviews. Some users love their Eclipse, others don't. The reason for that disparity, as explained in the introduction to this report, comes from the fact that every receiving location is unique, and factors such as hills, buildings and even trees can and will impact performance, as will the distance to the receiving towers and the channels local stations are using. Still, it earns recommendations from 82 percent of users, which is higher satisfaction than we see with many indoor antennas.
One issue with the Eclipse is that it's a little on the pricey side, especially for a product that will work terrifically for some and not so hot for others. For those who just want to test out the cord-cutting waters before committing to it, or that just want a basic, cheap, but good performing antenna for strong signal areas, the (Est. $10) looks to be a no-brainer. It doesn't ace every expert test -- Top Ten Reviews, for example, is decidedly less impressed, though Knoder adds that it will suffice for those within 35 miles or so of the TV towers.
Others, however, tell a different story. Both Wirecutter and CNET find that the ClearStream Eclipse is the best performing indoor antenna overall. However, both name the Flatenna 35 as runner up picks, and CNET is so impressed that it names this $10 Channel Master flat antenna an Editors' Choice. "Given its budget nature, it turned in a very surprising performance," says CNET's Ty Pendlebury. "It managed to outperform several of the more expensive models, including those with signal-boosting amplifiers." It finishes behind the Eclipse in testing by these two reviewers in terms of the raw number of channels received, but CNET notes that it fared well in handling some of the more problematical channels it targeted -- among the best in its trials in that regard.
There are some downsides. "It's cheaply made," says Wirecutter, a point on which CNET concurs, adding "This antenna feels flimsier than the Leaf it is based on." The permanently attached cord is short, at only 6 feet; you'll need to add a coupler if you want to extend the reach. Styling is plain -- just a black mud-flap-like sheet of plastic. It doesn't have the sticky surface of the Eclipse, nor are there any included fasteners -- you need to tape it into position or use a dab of putty to affix it to a window.
User reviews are, again, in the range of nearly every indoor HDTV antenna we looked at, a 4-star score at Amazon based on around 450 reviews. Bottom line: If you live where TV signals are at least decent, this $10 antenna could be all you need.
Our former Best Reviewed pick, the Mohu Leaf, remains available, and remains a solid choice with versions for every location where receiving TV signals with an indoor antenna is possible. Those include the (Est. $30), an unamplified "mud flap" antenna for locations within 30 miles of the TV towers, the (Est. $50), which includes a low-noise amplifier to boost the Leaf's range from 30 miles to 50 miles, at least theoretically, and the (Est. $15), a half-sized version of the leaf, designed for use in metro areas with strong signal levels.
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, as is the norm for many antennas of this type.
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 dŽcor. 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 TV sets.
In terms of performance, all three versions of the Leaf hold their own and even beat some more expensive options in comparative tests. There are thousands of user reviews available, and they follow the well-established pattern -- those that live where this type of antenna will work are generally happy; those who don't, aren't.
If you want to do your part to reduce landfill clutter while you are cutting the cord, the (Est. $35) is worth considering. It's essentially the Mohu Leaf 30, but made with recycled materials including, get this, the recycled remains of obsolete cable boxes returned to cable companies -- taking the idea of cord cutting to a whole new place. The body of the mud flap is made from 30 percent post-consumer recycled cardboard, while the ground up cable box material is used to form connector that joins the antenna to the detachable 10 foot coax cable that's included.
The ReLeaf is more than a gimmick, however. Performance is good -- comparable to the Mohu Leaf 30, and good enough to win Editors' Choice honors at Tom's Guide as the best unamplified indoor antenna. It's also the top rated indoor antenna at TechHive. CNET likes it well enough, and awards it a 4 star rating. However, Pendlebury adds that "the rival Channel Master Flatenna is a third of the price and performs similarly."
For those that plan to mount their flap-style antenna to a window, the clear (Est. $18) could be a consideration. While we don't completely buy the maker's claim that for window mounting, "its appearance is more art than antenna," it will certainly be a more attractive option for many than mounting a black, white, brown or grey square on a window's glass. It's pricier than the Channel Master Flattena, but still cheap enough to be the budget pick at Tom's Guide, with John R. Quain calling it "The top dog in our cheap antenna shootout." One significant plus -- the permanently attached cord is 20 feet rather than the Channel Master's six, so that can make for better placement flexibility. User feedback is good as well, including a 4.1 star score based on more than 1,160 reviews at Amazon.
The antennas profiled above work decently to very well under most reception conditions, but will be utter failures in some situations, including those where signal strengths appear strong; here's why:
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 (Est. $40) 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, including the low-band VHF channels (2-6) that are such a challenge to the antennas above. This is an old design that hasn't received much attention in recent years with the proliferation of less obtrusive, less fiddly designs, but it and its predecessor versions (all essentially similar) did well in the expert reviews of their day, including ones at HDTVExpert.com and TechHive.
Owner reviews are a bit mixed, however. 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 HDTVAZ more than they'd like. As its reception range isn't really any longer than the flap designs discussed above, this Terk antenna is only really a consideration for those who absolutely need a very directional antenna due to multipath or other issues. However, if that's your reception situation, the HDTVAZ could be one of the few solutions that will work where you live.
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 for those who live where low-band VHF channels (2-6) are still in use -- or could come back in use due to the spectrum repacking that's about to begin (see the Introduction for more information).
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 (Est. $5) looks like a good choice. That antenna, also sold as the RCA Basic Indoor Antenna and the RCA Indoor FM and HDTV Antenna, gets okay reviews at sites like Amazon, 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 HDTVAZ) 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, such as this one, 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 today, or in the future, there's another retro antenna worth considering -- the lowly bow tie antenna. In test after test at HDTVExpert.com, Peter Putman finds that a simple bow tie holds its own against -- and often beats -- fancier, pricier antennas. Though designed for UHF, it even performs credibly for high-band VHF (channels 7-13) reception in Putman'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 Summit Source 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 Putman 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.