There’s a good chance that your pursuit of cutting the cord has made you consider buying an HD antenna, a piece of equipment that seems a little archaic.
And, when you head to Amazon or go to a nearby Best Buy to find the right antenna, you’ll most likely become overwhelmed by the number of choices you have as well as all the terminology.
Our HDTV antenna buying guide simplifies this buying decision by detailing everything you need to know about the features that have the most influence on an antenna’s performance:
- Active antennas vs. passive
- Thick coaxial cables vs. thin
- Plugging directly into your TV or using a coaxial cable
- Gold connectors versus standard connectors
Before we get into each of these features, we’ll talk about how antennas work, as knowing how they work will help you see why active versus passive, coaxial cable and connectors play a role in antenna performance, as well as environmental factors like the topography around your home and the distance you are from TV towers.
Along the way, we’ll include the expertise of Philip Liebrecht, assistant deputy associate administrator of NASA’s space communications and navigation department (SCaN) and Dr. Brian Kopp, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of North Florida
How HD Antennas Work
The HD antenna you connect to your TV works based on the general principles of how antennas operate. TV towers emit frequencies that your antenna captures and then works with your TV to convert those frequencies into the audio and video you see and hear on your television.
“What an antenna does is receive electromagnetic signals in a frequency band it’s designed to operate in and converts those into signals that can be amplified and used in the case of a high definition TV. It’s a digital television signal,” Liebrecht said. “It’s converted into a picture and audio consumers can watch in their home or wherever they are.”
The goal of buying a digital antenna, then, should be finding one that does the best job of capturing those TV frequencies and sending them to your TV in the most stable form possible.
A few factors can influence that process, though, some of which have nothing to do with how the antenna is built. First, the farther you get from a TV tower, the weaker the signal will get and, therefore, the poorer the picture quality you’ll receive.
Liebrecht said those who live in cities will most likely get the best reception because TV towers tend to be located near or in areas with high population density.
“You are generally much closer to the transmitters because they tend to be located in cities or near cities," Liebrecht said. “The broadcasters are trying to make money, so they broadcast their energy to where most of their audience is.”
This is a key point because signal quality goes down exponentially the farther away you get from a TV tower. How far is too far from a tower?
Kopp said, ideally, you’ll live five miles away from a TV tower or closer. Once you get past that mark, you can experience enough interference and signal loss that the number of stations you can get with an antenna and the quality of those stations is considerably lower (in most cases).
Whatever the quality of the signal is, your antenna is going to receive it and send it down through the coaxial cable coming out of the back of it and into your TV. From there, the TV will translate the signal into the audio and visual information you hear and see.
All of the principles we list here are essential in understanding how which HDTV antennas work best and how you can go about buying the right one.
Active HD Antennas vs. Passive HD Antennas
One thing you’ll notice when you shop for the best digital antenna is that some antennas advertise the fact that they’re “active,” which is an alternative to “passive” antennas. What this means is that the antenna will have a power cord you’ll need to plug in to boost its ability to give you a stronger signal.
How does an active antenna strengthen the signal? Liebrecht told us that there’s a pre-amp installed in the antenna that boosts the signal before it heads into the cable that plugs into your TV.
The cable isn’t perfect at keeping the signal intact—some of the signal inevitably escapes—so boosting the signal before it travels down the cable helps mitigate some of the loss. Losing signal increases noises, which manifests itself on your screen as a pixelated and/or choppy visual and audio.
According to Tech Radar’s 2019 rankings of the best indoor HDTV antennas, active antennas provide the highest number of channels.
They ranked the amplified Amazon Basics UltraThin Antenna as the top choice, noting that it’s a few dollars more than the non-amplified (“passive”) version of the same antenna but well worth the cost.
Their second-ranked antenna was an amplified antenna, too: the TERK MTVGLS Indoor Plate Antenna. The antenna received the most channels of any that Tech Radar tested. However, it’s considerably more expensive than the top-rated antenna from Amazon.
HD Antennas With Thick Coaxial Cables vs. Thin Coaxial Cables
One of the easiest ways to find a good digital antenna for your money is to look at the size and length of the coaxial cord that comes with it.
The coaxial cord plays a huge role in how good of a signal you get because, as we mentioned in the previous section, the signal has to travel through it in order to get to your TV.
A coaxial cable has three main parts to it, Kopp said: a central conductor, a shield and white plastic in between.
“This plastic sets up an environment where the TV signal can exist between the center conductor and outer conductor. That’s where it travels,” Kopp said. “If you think of it as a pipe and they’re often referred to as a waveguide. The shape of a coax is almost always round.”
Now, it’s inevitable that your coaxial cable is going to lose some of the signal’s strength. It’s sort of like a garden hose with holes in it. The more holes, the less water that’s going to make it to the end of the hose.
The more shielding a cable has, the less loss it will experience. This is why Liebrecht recommends finding a low-loss coaxial cable to run between your indoor TV antenna and your TV. We did a quick scan of low-loss coaxial cables on Amazon and found a two-foot cable for $15.98 and a 10-foot cable for $25.98.
Keep in mind that these coaxial cables will only work with an antenna that doesn’t have a cable already built into it.
If you don’t want to buy an additional cable for your TV antenna, then another way to weed out antennas with poor cables is to look at the diameter of the cable. Kopp told us that, while it’s hard to know the quality of shielding in a coaxial cable, a good rule of thumb tends to be: “Thicker is better.”
Because of this, we’d recommend looking at TV antennas at Walmart or Best Buy so you can see and feel that cords. Those that feel flimsy and are very thin will most likely result in a lot of signal loss, whereas a sturdy coaxial cord probably means the antenna will do a better job of preserving the TV signal.
And, while you’re in the store, you can check to see which antennas have coaxial cables are detachable and which ones are built into the antenna. In the event that you want to buy a low-loss cable, you’ll need an antenna that has a removable coaxial cable.
We went to BestBuy.com to find some examples of antennas with skinny cables, thick cablesб and removable cables.
A good example of an antenna with a removable, thick coaxial cable is the Mohu Beam. The antenna’s Best Buy page shows a pair of removable coaxial cables. Both are the standard size in terms of thickness.
An example of an HD antenna with a thin coaxial cable would be the Ultra HD Antenna. You can see from the photo at the top of the page that the cable is much thinner than the Mohu Beam’s.
Based on what we’ve learned, we think the Mohu’s thicker coaxial cable will do a better job of preserving your TV signal as it travels from the antenna to our TV.
HD Antennas That Plug Directly into Your TV vs. Those That Use a Coaxial Cable
In our reviews of various HD antennas, we’ve come across products that plug directly into the back of your TV. These antennas seem to benefit from eliminating a coaxial cable altogether, such that you won’t lose any of the signal strength because you’re going straight into your TV.
However, Kopp said, what you gain in eliminating a loss problem you lose in another very important way.
“The advantage of a direct plug-in is that there is no cable length for any loss. The antenna connector connects right onto TV. The disadvantage is that the antenna is being placed behind a large box with metal on it in a place with lots of wood and plaster and other around it and all that stuff has a loss effect on TV signals,” Kopp said.
You see, the TV signals coming from TV towers are doing their best to get into your home. However, there are a ton of factors that impede it: walls, entertainment centers, cell phone signals, and wireless signals.
All of these things act as enemies to your TV signal, which happens to be low power and susceptible to outside influences.
So, while it might be nice to save space and visual continuity through an antenna that doesn’t use a cable, there’s a good chance the signal you get will be weaker than if you used a wired antenna.
“The loss you would have had in the cable is probably less than the loss that you’re getting putting the antenna in the TV. The antenna with the cable is going to win every time,” Kopp said.
HD Antennas With Gold Connectors vs. HD Antennas With Standard Connectors
Of the big three buying decisions you can make when you shop for an HDTV antenna, we’d say this category is going to be the least frequent you’ll come across. However, it’s important to know what you’re getting into because marketing for antennas with gold-plated connectors is pretty enticing.
According to our sources, that’s not quite the case. The actual cable—not the connectors—plays the most important role in transferring the signal your antenna captures.
Liebrecht told us that NASA used gold on their antennas because gold is excellent at conducting electricity and, therefore, signals. However, there’s a big difference between capturing a signal with gold and using a gold connector.
Therefore, we don’t think that a gold-plated connector is necessarily going to increase your antenna’s performance.
However, Kopp pointed out that gold corrode and, therefore, if you live in a humid environment, gold connectors are an excellent choice because they can withstand the moisture in the air.
“Gold offers the advantage of not corroding easily. Gold last longer than steel or tin or electroplated like a nickel alloy that’s not as robust,” Kopp said.
Keep in mind, though, that the type of metal used for your connector isn’t going to have a huge impact on the quality of the signal your TV gets, nor does it seem to have a big effect on overall performance.
Other Considerations When Buying HD Antennas
As you’re shopping for a digital antenna, it can be easy to slip into a mindset in which you think that picking the right antenna is going to fix all of your poor-reception problems.
However, as we learned in our interviews with Liebrecht and Kopp, that simply isn’t true. There are several factors that affect your TV signal, some of which have nothing to do with the antenna you buy.
Where you place your antenna in your home is a key to the device’s performance. You’ll want to place the antenna as high up as possible.
Also, you want to cut down the number of obstacles between your antenna and the outdoors. Because of this, the ideal placement for an antenna is in a window, as there’s nothing but a pane of glass separating from the outdoors.
Second, where your home is located in relation to trees, tall buildings and mountains also plays a role in the quality of the signal you get. All these various obstacles can black and/or weaken the signal reaching your house, resulting in choppy or scrambled TV channels.
Also, we believe it’s important for you to purchase an antenna with an easy return policy. Antennas are a fickle device and there’s no guarantee that one will work better than another. Therefore, we recommend you buying one from Walmart, Target or Amazon, as those three companies tend to have generous return policies.
Also, know where your TV signals are coming from. Sites like the Federal Trade Commission’s antenna page we mentioned earlier will show you which channels are coming from which directions. You can use this site and ones like it to figure out where to point your HD antenna so that you get a clearer signal.
Pro tip: Kopp told us that the shape of the antenna you buy isn’t going to have a significant impact on the quality of your TV signal.
Final Thoughts About Buying an HD Antenna
Based on our interviews with experts as well as our own research, we believe that buying a good HDTV antenna that actually works is a simple process as long as you know what to look for.
First, an active antenna has technology in it to boost the signal your antenna captures as that signal travels down your coaxial cable. For this reason, we think it could be a great option for anyone who lives at least five miles away from a TV tower.
Second, make sure you’re considering digital antennas that have thick coaxial cables or that have removable antennas. If you want to put your antenna high up or more than a few feet away from your TV, consider using a low-loss coaxial cable to mitigate the signal you’ll lose.
Finally, while gold connectors can stave off corrosion, they most likely won’t improve your signal to the point that you’ll want to go out of your way to purchase a gold-plated antenna or coaxial cable.