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Cut the cord for $10: Best indoor TV antenna in 2020 – CNET

Over-the-air TV still seems like a well-kept secret these days, but it allows you to watch some of the best TV shows, sports events and specials for free with a decent signal. No more paying for cable or a streaming subscription. Besides a TV set, there’s just one small but vital accessory you’ll need: a TV antenna. And thankfully, TV antennas have come a long way since the rabbit ears of yesteryear. 

An over-the-air, or OTA, antenna feed is great for events you want to watch live, such as sporting events and the evening news. Depending on where you live, you can watch anything on the following stations: NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS, PBS and other channels like MyNetworkTV and The CW. (Disclosure: CNET is owned by ViacomCBS.) While a roof-mounted antenna or outdoor TV antenna would do the job, your TV already has a built-in tuner, and adding an indoor antenna costs less than $20 shipped.  

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The downside is that in some places, the TV signal of some channels is spotty or nonexistent due to either your proximity or lack thereof to broadcast towers or obstructions that break up the signal. Unlike a live TV streaming service, OTA TV is restricted to a single television, and the signal from an OTA TV antenna won’t work on phones or other devices. Unless, of course, you kick it up a notch with an OTA DVR.

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Now playing: Watch this: How to cut the cord for $10: installing an indoor antenna

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We tested seven different indoor antennas with prices ranging from $10 to $90. The best TV antennas were able to pull in more channels than the others and delivered stronger, clearer TV signals, even on “problem” channels. We tested in two different locations: urban Manhattan and suburban New Jersey. We’ll keep this updated as we review new products. Here are the seven TV antennas we looked at:

  • Channel Master Flatenna 35 ($10 plus $7.50 shipping)
  • AmazonBasics Ultra Thin Indoor TV Antenna ($20)
  • 1byOne Upgraded 2019 Digital Amplified Indoor HD TV Antenna ($18)
  • Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse ($40)
  • Mohu ReLeaf ($30)
  • Channel Master Smartenna Plus ($49)
  • U Must Have Amplified High Definition Digital TV Antenna ($28) 

The best TV antennas we tested

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Detachable coaxial cable? Yes
  • Number of channels: 50 in Manhattan, 61 in New Jersey
  • Number of watchable channels: 9 out of 13 checked, both locations

The Flatenna 35 has been upgraded with a removable antenna since our original test two years ago. It seems that signal performance has also improved — it’s now the best of our seven models at pulling in channels, beating our previous recommendation, the Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse. 

And yes, the best TV antenna is just $10 (plus $7.50 shipping) from Channel Master’s website or on Amazon. (It’s called either the Flatenna 35 or Duo depending on where you buy it from.) Best reception and cheapest price? We have a winner.

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Detachable coaxial cable? Yes
  • Number of channels: 39 in Manhattan, 65 in New Jersey
  • Number of watchable channels: 9 out of 13 checked, both locations

Maybe you’ve tried the Flatenna with so-so results and want to give it another shot. The $40 Antennas Direct Eclipse won our original comparison and performed very well again this time around. 

With its ankh-shaped and multidirectional reversible compact design, the ClearStream antenna is definitely unique. It comes with sticky tabs for attaching it to your window, which is handy. And if you need more signal oomph, there’s a $20 amplifier available as well. 

While the Eclipse is still available, be aware that there’s now an upgraded Eclipse 2 model, though we have yet to test it.

The rest

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Detachable coax? No
  • Number of channels: 34 in Manhattan, 49 in New Jersey
  • Number of watchable channels: 6 out of 13 checked, both locations

The 1byOne is one of two antennas in this list with a nonremovable coax cable, and at only 10 feet long, it may not work in some rooms. The black plastic feels a little cheap compared with the others, though the model does come with a powered gain amplifier. It was toward the bottom of the pack in terms of signal performance, but it was the only one to pick up CBS at our Manhattan location (see below for details).

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Detachable coaxial cable? Yes
  • Number of channels: 41 in Manhattan, 64 in New Jersey
  • Number of watchable channels: 8 out of 13 checked, both locations

The $20 AmazonBasics ran neck and neck with the Channel Master Flatenna. It has an eerily similar design and also includes a removable coax. Only a higher price prevents it from beating the Flatenna. But maybe you want something in white. At the moment it appears that Amazon is out of stock and only has second-hand models available. Get the Channel Master Flatenna instead.

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Detachable coaxial cable? Yes
  • Number of channels: 29 in Manhattan, 66 in New Jersey
  • Number of watchable channels: 6 out of 13 checked, both locations

The $34 Mohu ReLeaf is a retread of the original Leaf, constructed from recycled materials. This Mohu antenna comes with small mounting holes on the top, for thumbtacks, but it lacks sticky applicators and the paper construction tears easily. It works fairly well, is multidirectional and gives you good reception, but it’s expensive. Read our Mohu ReLeaf review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Detachable cable? No
  • Number of channels: 28 in Manhattan, 62 in New Jersey
  • Number of watchable channels: 6, or 7 with amplifier, out of 13 checked, both locations

The U Must Have comes with a sticky pad on the back and a relatively long, though nonremovable, lead at 18 feet. The included amplifier gives the antenna some flexibility and the product feels more solidly made overall than the 1byOne, though they performed similarly.

Sarah Tew/CNET

  • Detachable coaxial cable? Yes
  • Number of channels: 31 in Manhattan, 53 in New Jersey
  • Number of watchable channels: 5 out of 13 checked in Manhattan, 3 in New Jersey

This upgrade to the original Smartenna is basically a completely different model. The old one was an indoor-outdoor antenna, but the $59 Plus is indoor-only, with an onboard amplifier/processor designed to “automatically select the best reception pattern.” 

Based on our testing in numerous locations it didn’t work so well, though. Even in a poor reception area, it didn’t pick up any more TV stations than the cheaper models. It may thrive in some very specific circumstances, but it didn’t work out for us.

Best antennas compared

Price No of channels (Manhattan) No of channels (NJ) No of watchable channels (out of 13)
Channel Master Flatenna 35 $10 50 61 9
AmazonBasics Ultra Thin Indoor TV Antenna $20 41 64 8
Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse $40 39 65 9
1byOne Upgraded 2019 Digital Amplified Indoor HD TV Antenna $18 34 49 6
Mohu ReLeaf $30 29 66 6
U Must Have Amplified HD Digital TV Antenna $28 28 62 6
Channel Master Smartenna+ $49 31 53 5

How we tested the TV antennas

Much like real estate, how well a TV antenna works is based on location, location and location.

We tested the antennas in two main locations: in midtown Manhattan just a half-mile from the broadcast antennas on the Empire State Building — albeit obscured by other buildings — and in suburban New Jersey, 9 miles from the closest broadcast towers. Depending on your location, you might receive broadcasts from multiple antennas. Hills or large buildings in the way will have an effect on frequency range and reception.

We situated each antenna in the same spot and connected it to the Channel Master DVR Plus, which gives signal strength data as well as a total channel count. We used two different metrics to determine which TV antenna performed best. The first was a raw measure of the number of channels it could detect, while the second involved a number of predetermined “problem channels.” For these, we consulted a list of channels culled from various forums, for both testing areas, and gauged how well the antennas pulled in each channel.

Our list of “problem” channels in Manhattan was WABC 7.1 (ABC), WNET 13.1 (PBS), WPIX 11.1 (CW — Manhattan only) and WNJB 58.1 (PBS — NJ only). In addition we added popular channels CBS 2.1, WNBC 4 (NBC), and WNYW 5 (Fox).

While the results will vary depending on where you live and how far you are from TV towers, we found that the best-performing models received more of the most popular channels as well as local channels and additional radio broadcasts and Spanish-language stations.

Most of the TV antennas are based on the same rectangular design, but there was one important consideration: the cable. Did the antenna have a long, high-performance coaxial cable or, even better, a detachable one? You’ll be sticking one of these in your window, which could be a long way from your TV, so longer is better.

It’s worth noting that some of these antennas — the 1byOne and the Channel Master Smartenna Plus — include gain-boosting amplifiers. While the 1byOne will also work without the amp attached, the Channel Master won’t. Based on our experiences in a number of locations, however, amplifiers offer a wildly unpredictable benefit. If you can’t get TV reception with an indoor antenna, a gain amp may not actually help you, and in other cases, it could make your reception worse by overloading channels that already have a strong signal. 

antennas-08.jpg

Several antennas in our list include a powered amplifier, but use thoughtfully, as these may actually make a strong signal worse.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Installing an indoor antenna

Unlike when we reviewed indoor antennas in 2016, most of these antennas include some form of adhesive to attach them to your wall or window. If for some reason they lack this option you could try packing tape or poster putty instead.

When you install it, you will definitely need to experiment with the placement. A wall may actually be better than a window, depending on the orientation of your living area. Also, if possible keep the antenna away from magnetic metals such as security bars or the like since they can interfere with your signal.

If you buy a model with a short, captive lead like the 1byOne, be aware that you may need to buy a male-female extension lead, and more coaxial cable, to get it to reach your equipment.

Finally, if you live in a poor coverage area, with weak signals, an indoor antenna may not be for you. We tried using the antennas at a location in the Hudson Valley and none of them worked at all, even the signal-boosting Smartenna. That’s why it’s best to test the waters with a cheap antenna first, instead of spending a hundred bucks on something that might not work in your location.

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