Journal 2SG5 TV antennas - OTA HDTV reception

TV antennas - OTA HDTV reception

in broadcast-tv-enginee on (#2SG5)
Cable/satellite TV is a huge expense (typically over $700 per year), which is completely unnecessary for anyone in the US located within 100 miles of a major city.

With the switch to digital HDTV, the picture will look BETTER than any cable/satellite transmission, AND digital sub-channels mean most people end up getting DOZENS of TV channels.

What's more, you'll find that 95% of good, original TV programming is on broadcast TV networks. For a few others shows you can't stand to miss, you may find that Netflix and Hulu can provide them, at far less cost than maintaining a cable/satellite subscription, and come with other added benefits, too.

Since the HDTV switch-over, OTA (over the air) TV reception is actually growing, at the expense of cable/satellite:

To get an idea of what TV signals are in the area, at what strength, and in which direction(s), input your address on TVFool, and look at the digital stations available to you:

Practically all broadcasters on VHF-low (channels 2-6) are dropping their existing channel assignments, and switching to a higher (UHF) one. There are very few exceptions. There are also some (much lesser) signs of broadcasters leaving VHF-high (7-13), likely due to the FCC charging up to 3X as much in annual fees for VHF licenses versus the equivalent UHF, which they've only recently rectified (2014). But for the time being, there are lots of VHF-high channels, so you will need an antenna that can receive channels 7-13. However, with "repacking" after the FCC incentive auction, it's quite possible that this trend will reverse completely after about 2017 or so, when broadcasters in your area may be ordered to change their frequencies.

STRONG SIGNAL (0-20 miles):
If you are just a few miles from all the TV stations you want to receive, and there are no obstructions in the way, you would probably do well to just get a TV-top antenna that does both VHF and UHF ("rabbit ears" for VHF, and a "loop" or "bow-tie" for UHF). They are best placed in-front of a window, facing towards the broadcasting towers. If you have obstacles, are near the maximum distance, want to serve a number of TVs, or otherwise reception is simply poor, see the next section (below).

You do NOT want an antenna with a knob on it, meant to allow fine-tuning of reception for old analog signals. With a strong enough signal, those will mostly work in a few settings, but you'll have to keep switching them back and forth every time you change channels, to get ANY picture. You should not assume that the poor performance of an old antenna like this, which you already have, will give you a proper idea of typical reception with a proper replacement.

Also, an amplifier on an indoor antenna is either completely useless or may even hurt reception. They only help with very long coax cable runs, or if you are splitting one antenna out to several different TVs.

Here's a cheap, basic set-top VHF/UHF antenna:

MEDIUM SIGNAL (20-40 miles):
Don't get an antenna that is large, and/or highly directional with high gain (db) or else it will be unnecessarily difficult to install and aim the antenna. Hopefully all the channels you want to watch are coming from the same general direction, otherwise, you'll need a (low-end) antenna rotator to get a good signal. Two antennas pointed in different directions really doesn't work well, unless you have a very strong signal.

Unless the UHF and VHF signals are coming from very different locations, you'll probably want to get a single VHF/UHF antenna, to keep costs low.

Here's one of the cheapest outdoor antenna I could find, and it includes a basic rotator, preamp, 40ft of RG-59 coax, and a 2-way splitter built-in:

Supersonic SC-603 VHF/UHF

Here's a higher-powered option (but without the rotator, preamp, etc.):

AntennaCraft AC9 VHF/UHF

With the SC-603, I can get very "Good" signals on digital UHF stations down to -85dBm (according to tvfool), but then nothing at all below it, perhaps because this antenna is poor at rejecting the co-channel interference common on those. Analog UHF stations below -75dBm had lots of static and were unpleasant to watch. VHF stations were a bit weaker, and none came close to proper reception, so expect the VHF gain to be pretty poor.

Don't pay too much attention to product specs... Any manufacturer will lie through their teeth, claiming 200+ mile reception with a $10 antenna, but it is just nonsense. The size and design (not specs or price) will tell you what kind of reception you will get, and unbiased customer reviews are most helpful (as on Amazon, but NOT SolidSignal or similar).

If you do need separate UHF and VHF antennas, I suggest a 4-bay antenna for UHF, and something small like an AntennaCraft Y5-7-13 for VHF-hi. 4-bay antennas are hard to find, now, but almost any 8-bay antenna can be used as two separate 4-bay antennas, with the purchase of a few extra u-bolts...

4-pack U-bolts with nuts and plate

AntennaCraft Y5-7-13 VHF-high

To connect both of them to a single coax cable, DO NOT USE A REGULAR SPLITTER or you'll ruin your reception for no good reason. You want a $10 UHF/VHF combiner, usually labeled "USVJ", made by Pico Macom/Blonder Tongue/Holland/etc. Or this may feature MAY be included by mast-mounted preamplifiers (see below).

Pico Macom--Tru Spec UVSJ

I recommend an 8-bay antenna for UHF. One of the top performers, (and significantly less expensive than other 8-bay antennas) is the Winegard 8800. Any 8-bay performs quite well at the lower range of UHF frequencies from 14 to 51. A yagi+corner reflector like an AntennasDirect XG91 (and the dozens of cheaper models commonly seen on roof-tops) will out-perform it only on the highest channels (62-69), which are no longer used for broadcast TV. It's stunning to read the Amazon reviews on the XG91 in particular, where people will admit they have more channel break-up than with an old 8-bay, but it's still better because their TV's signal meter show slightly more bars!

Winegard 8800 8-bay UHF

A few 8-bay antenna manufacturers claim their product gets good VHF performance, but it's all misinformation. At best, they only barely outperform the most basic "rabbit ear" type designs. If you're far enough from UHF stations that you need an 8-bay, you're probably also far from VHF stations, and need a GOOD VHF antenna to bring in the signal. A barely-capable-of-VHF 8-bay simply doesn't have enough gain to get decent VHF reception. A $20 VHF-high antenna will blow them all away. And make sure you use a "UVSJ" VHF/UHF combiner, NOT a standard splitter to connect them (linked above).

One other advantage that multi-bay antennas have over yagi+corner reflectors is size/depth. If you are renting an apartment, you are allowed to install any antenna you want on your property. Multi-bay antennas are pretty flat, and could mount even just on an outside window ledge. Just make sure to mount it securely, because they can be pretty heavy. If there's no location for installation outdoors, you could also install it on the inside of a window, facing out, perhaps hidden from view by your curtain... a yagi would stick out, halfway across the room.

FCC "OTARD" Antenna Placement Rules

VHF antennas are pretty straight-forward. The longer, the better. Outside of Alaska, you probably don't need VHF-lo reception, so a VHF-hi antenna can give good gain, at a smaller size and price. The AntennaCraft Y10-7-13 (120") is a popular model for fringe reception, and is widely available, while fairly inexpensive. For less-distant reception, the AntennaCraft Y5-7-13 is about half-price, and half the size.

AntennaCraft Y5-7-13 VHF-high

AntennaCraft Y10-7-13 VHF-high

With a Winegard 8800, I'm able to get digital UHF signals down to almost -120dBm, and great picture quality on analog stations even with attic mounting. Covering the back-side with aluminum window screen materials improves reception just slightly, but greatly cuts down on interference from signals directly behind the antenna.

With a Y10-7-13, I can get strong signals on digital VHF stations at -91dBm, but then around -95dBm things break-up frequently. VHF antennas don't get as much gain as UHF, so you need a slightly stronger signal, even with the best antennas available.

And if your signal levels are too low, pairing-up two of the same antennas together can give quite a significant gain of 3dB, which is a doubling of signal strength, since dB is a logarithmic scale... And raising your antenna mast to double the height will again give you an extra 3dB, or double the signal. But beyond 150 miles from the transmitter, you're really not going to be able to get regular reception, unless you're on top of a mountain.

If you're going to run the coax straight down from the antenna, directly through a wall and to a single TV, there's almost no benefit to be had from a preamp / signal amplifier. If, however, you're going to run long cables all around your house, split the signal up for 4 TVs, etc., a mast-mounted preamp is invaluable, and will make a TV antenna perform much more like cable.

It's important to remember that you've got to supply power to the preamp. This means you'll need the coax running indoors to a power outlet, either before hitting a splitter, or on a "power passing" leg of a splitter, as many (most?) are now designed to accommodate preamps. If you don't properly connect the power injector, you'll get a terribly weak signal, until you get it all sorted out.

Choosing a preamp was more complicated before, but today, you can either go for a cheap but quite decent preamp like the widely available RCA unit, or spend about twice as much for the top-of-the-line Winegard LNA-200 Boost XT.

RCA TVPRAMP1R Preamplifier

Winegard LNA-200 Boost XT

The "noise" figure is the significant part. If your TV/tuner needs 6db of signal, and you buy a cheap preamp that has 5db "noise" spec, it might actually hurt reception. Meanwhile, the LNA-200's 1db "noise" spec is lower than any tuner, and should improve reception, except in a few extreme cases like signal overload. I've done side-by-side comparisons, and the LNA-200 XT absolutely does offer a slight improvement over cheaper and older preamps. I don't suggest replacing a working 3dbN preamp, unless maybe you're just right on the edge of one specific channel coming in clearly... However, note that the RCA unit has separate VHF/UHF inputs, saving you an extra $10 on-top of the lower purchase price, by eliminating the need for a UVSJ.

You don't need to think about the "gain," or other "distribution" amplifiers, unless you have EXTREMELY long cable runs, and/or are splitting out to a dozen TVs.

A DVR/PVR is a must-have item. Not only can you pause live TV, and skip commercials so each program is 1/3 shorter, you will also find that you quickly accumulate more TV shows than you can watch. When you never miss an episode, and can select from shows airing while you're working or sleeping, the extra hours of viewing really add-up, and necessitates a change in viewing habits. A DVR simply multiplies the value of any and every channel you have available.

Today, the most basic DVRs are very cheap, though you do notably lose the ability to watch one show, while another is being recorded with the current generation of this cheap hardware. They work by having a USB port that you must use to plug-in a hard drive for storage.

$50-100 for the USB drive. I suggest small, 2.5" USB bus-powered drives, only.

Toshiba Canvio Connect Portable Hard Drive

$30-50 for the DVR/tuner box... Ematic / ViewTV recommended:

Ematic AT103B tuner/recorder

Viewtv At-163 tuner/recorder

I can't generally recommend anything other than the Ematic or Viewtv. Unlike most other similar boxes, they do proper (analog-)signal pass-through while the box is powered-off, which makes wiring for the others a big problem. They also have stable firmware without some of the bugs other boxes notoriously suffer from.

The EMatic happens to be the cheapest, but recent units have noticeably worse reception, so the ViewTV box may be worth the extra money. I strongly suggest avoiding the IVIEW brand boxes, due to HORRIBLE warranty terms ($20 repair shipping charges), terrible remote, and all manner of endless firmware bugs.

Cheapest antenna mast option I've found is a chain-link fence "top rail". $11 for 10ft segments at local hardware stores, with tapered ends that allow them to fit together. To connect multiple 10ft segments together requires drilling a couple holes and bolting them together, but nothing more expensive or involved is required, unlike other types of bulk pipe. Don't cheap-out on heavy-duty bolts and nuts, though!

10ft x 1 3/8" 17 gauge Galvanized steel top rail

If you're mounting to a wall, overhang, etc., make sure the screws for the mounting bracket get a good solid grip on a nice sturdy stud. The forces involved are impressive. And if you're only using one mount at the top, and resting the bottom on the ground, make sure it's buried at least 6 inches deep, preferably inside a buried cinder block or similar. If you don't give any thought to the footing, the leverage will be enough to just push aside a 1-inch wide channel of dirt, bend the top bracket or break your eaves, then collapse on your roof.

Channel Master heavy-duty 4" (wall-clearance) wall mount

Channel Master heavy-duty 12" (wall-clearance) wall mounts

The typical recommendation is that no segment should be taller than 10ft (above the top mounting bracket), without the use of guy wires. Otherwise, expect lots of flexing in high winds, and the possibility of the antenna mast collapsing.

Chimney-mount hardware is inexpensive and works great, either for an actual chimney, or other large and heavy roof-top items, like an air conditioner condenser. The actual straps can be substituted for plumbers tape/pipe strap if desired, but the two angle-iron brackets and other in
Reply 13 comments

I'd miss too many shows (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-20 02:57 (#2SN1)

Very informative and cost effective if you can live with just the basic channels. Unfortunately, because a lot of the shows that I enjoy are aired only on cable channels, I'm afraid I'd miss out on too much.

Game of Thrones (HBO), Dexter (Showtime), Defiance (SyFy), etc...

I would still forgo the cable subscription (I've never had one) and instead get a Netflix DVD plan. This way you get both TV and movies at the full Bluray 1080p quality with no censorship (cursewords, altered scenes, etc) and no commercials.

Intimidatingly great start to journaling (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-21 22:50 (#2SQH)

Wow, between this and Bryan's thing on electrical generation, you may have scared off every other potential journaller, who is now home quivering in fear their own contributions will be inadequate ;)

Question - is this your own research, or cut and paste from other sites? It seems like it's your own work, which is extremely impressive!

Second question - I used to be a huge shortwave radio buff but now despite big investments in antennas, there's not much out there on the shortwaves. How is the trend going the other way in OTA television? I'd have thought for sure the content wouldn't be out there. You're making me think/realize that's not true! Is it mostly foreign content?

Re: Intimidatingly great start to journaling (Score: 2, Informative)

by on 2014-09-22 04:19 (#2SQN)

Question - is this your own research, or cut and paste from other sites?
It's my own summary of the state of equipment and the industry... I would have linked my sources if I was copying anything from anyone. But like my first flood of submissions, this is just a copy/paste of what I wrote-up on SoylentNews a while ago. And that was actually from my journal on /. years early, but was massively updated in the move to SN, to account for new equipment on the market, other equipment disappearing, and more.
I used to be a huge shortwave radio buff but now despite big investments in antennas, there's not much out there on the shortwaves. How is the trend going the other way in OTA television?
Shortwave, and radio more generally, is a format in decline (I'm very sorry to say), thanks largely to TV, so they're struggling for content. An interesting development is some news radio stations (CBS) playing the audio portion of TV newscasts... In addition, the growth of podcasting would seem to offer lots of fresh and cheap content ripe for syndication, but I haven't seen that happening. I consider the best radio content out there, but they don't have many AM/FM radio stations airing their content, and certainly no shortwave stations:

But I digress... video isn't going anywhere, and most original content comes from the big 4 broadcasters. And content on cable networks eventually gets syndicated on OTA channels, anyhow. In fact the switch to highdef has been driving demand for more content, combined with technology like digital cameras and CGI making it far cheaper to produce, there's ever-more and more of it coming out, not less. Industry reporters are calling today the "golden age of TV," with more big celebrities moving to the small-screen, more epic mini-series style shows coming after the success of The Sopranos, as well as technology (eg. DVRs, DVDs and Streaming allowing "binge watching") pulling-in larger and dedicated audiences. Sure, there's a flood of "reality TV," "CSI" spin-offs, and horrible sitcoms, but consider the astronomical success of: Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, House of Cards, Walking Dead, Homeland, The Blacklist, Scandal, Agents of SHIELD, etc. etc. There's a huge amount of big-budget content on the small screen right now. And even where it's on cable networks, much gets syndicated to OTA a few seasons later.

It's just a question of distribution, and OTA is by-far the most inexpensive for the viewer. Cable had an advantage with the poor picture quality of analog broadcasts, and its ability to carry more channels, but HDTV reversed things, and digital OTA provides you the best picture available. The ability for broadcasters to multiplex multiple sub-channels means OTA offers much more content than before, further reducing the need/demand for cable. DVRs (and cheap DVDs) additionally eliminated the need for all those cable channels that mostly just syndicated broadcast TV shows, all for far less than the $70/month cost of cable... $800/year could be an awful lot of DVD rentals or purchases.

In addition, Netflix/Hulu/YouTube/etc., are making their presence known. People wanted cheaper and "ala cart" cable for a long time. Now they can get their favorite shows on-demand for ~$8/month over the internet, and that mode of distribution compliments OTA antenna TV viewing quite nicely. Streaming fills-in the occasional viewing of what people might be missing from OTA, but being weighing heavy on their internet pipes, being late/slow to get the latest content, missing local news and sports entirely, and more, so OTA antennas are able to perfectly fill-in the gaps in streaming, without the astronomical cost of cable.

VHF Lo (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-09-22 19:40 (#2SSE)

Last I checked Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh all had digital channels on VHF-low. So the best advice is to check your area to see if you need VHF-low, not "unless you are in Alaska".

Re: VHF Lo (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-23 11:57 (#2STW)

Looking at what's available in your area is, indeed, step #1 in my write-up.

Just because there's a channel on some frequency in an area, doesn't mean you want to go to great lengths to get it... The channels still on VHF-lo are usually tiny little independent stations people generally don't want to watch, anyhow... often low-power TV with a tiny radius, too.

In addition, a VHF-hi antenna isn't going to be completely unable to get VHF-lo stations, it will just struggle to get the lowest ones from as far away as it can manage higher frequencies... In a very strong signal area, even a UHF antenna will pickup VHF-lo channels.

And manufacturers have basically given-up on the market. You can hardly find any of the old full-range VHF antennas that were so prevalent, before.

Nice! (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-09-22 22:57 (#2SSQ)

Damn I'm glad I was bored and scrolled down to the blog section. :-)

Couple of questions...

Why no mention of other tuner options? Last time I looked the only reasonable choice were the HDHomeRuns, and they were pretty expensive for handling only two tuners. They pretty much had a monopoly on network attached tuners, and all the PCI cards were iffy. Then of course you get into MythTV v. XBMC v. WMCE v. MediaPortal, so I guess I see why you stuck to antennas.

Second, regarding mounting forces, my house's original antenna was on a vent pipe and caused leaks when it ripped off in a storm. Do I screw into my poor old roof to mount a base/mast, or hope my old metal faux chimney can take the stress?

Re: Nice! (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-25 07:06 (#2STV)

Why no mention of other tuner options?
This journal is more than long enough as-is...
all the PCI cards were iffy
Not sure where you got that idea from. Cards from Hauppauge, Twinhan, and others work just fine.
Do I screw into my poor old roof to mount a base/mast, or hope my old metal faux chimney can take the stress?
I would only try a chimney mount to a heavy object, not a stove pipe vent, if that's what you mean. Even if you don't have a catastrophic failure, the added stress and movement is likely to shorten the life of your roof and cause leaks. If lacking large rooftop candidates, I most often prefer one bracket as high on the eves as possible, and a mast going down into the ground. Two brackets on the wall is even more-secure. Most other methods won't support a large antenna jutting up 10ft above the top of your roof.

A J-pipe dish mount works fine up to just a couple feet,... A tripod will let you go a bit higher, but still not nearly 10ft without supporting guy wires.

If you're concerned about making holes, there are "non-penetrating roof mounts" available, which set on top of your roof and just get anchored with bricks. You could compliment it with guy-wires anchored down at ground level, for taller masts... All without any holes in the building...

Re: Nice! (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-09-23 16:35 (#2SV5)

The Hauppauges rate decently well, but I read very mixed reviews of the AverMedia products as well as all the various lesser known brands. (Seriously, from the reviews many of them are complete garbage.) I don't think I've heard of Twinhan, so thanks. But even with the Hauppauges I read enough sob stories about incompatibilities (or upgrade issues) that it seemed the general recommendation was to go with an Ethernet attached tuner, and again it seemed Silicon Dust HDHomeRun was the only game in town.

My chimney is weird. It's a very wide square metal enclosure with fake bricks painted on it. I tried to find a chimney cap for it but none of them would quite fit. (Don't have the dimensions handy but somewhere around 2 feet.) It seems sturdy enough but I don't want a repeat leak performance. I'm not so much concerned about making holes in the shingles as I am about making sure they're secure enough.

I don't need a particularly high mast. If it weren't for the leak I'd think about re-using the vent pipe, which is no more than a couple of feet high.

I recently had a new sat dish put up (still trying to cut this crap out) so I suppose I could piggyback a small UHF on it, but I already purchased a decent conventional antenna (HBU22 I believe).

Would a "non-penetrating" mount actually work on a sloped shingle roof?

Thanks for the advice...

Re: Nice! (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-25 07:06 (#2SVD)

Yes, there are non-penetrating roof mounts that are bent at close to 90 degrees, specifically to fit right on top of the peak of a sloped roof.

But since you have a dish mount, as you said, I'd suggest putting both on that. You can buy a longer J-pipe to make more room if necessary.

Twinhan is a much bigger name in Europe, with DVB tuners. Hauppauge cards are the most consistently supported under Linux and Windows (Media Center), so I don't know what upgrade issues you refer to.

Yes, HDHomeRun is less trouble, can be used by laptops and tablets and such, and has a smartphone app to make antenna aiming easier, but the other (cheaper) options work fine, too.

Re: Nice! (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-09-24 01:48 (#2SVJ)

Thanks! Are you saying I could get away with linking the HBU22 to the little sat dish? I would have thought it would overwhelm it. I'll have to get up there and check.

My last sat dish just had some short lag bolts or something. Come to think of it I've got a few old dishes up there now. :( But they always have little custom mounts, not poles, so I'm missing your point I think.

Re: Nice! (Score: 1)

by on 2014-09-24 02:57 (#2SVQ)

Are you saying I could get away with linking the HBU22 to the little sat dish? I would have thought it would overwhelm it
Yes, the wind-loads on a solid dish are huge, and a dish can't move at all without signal break-up, so the brackets are designed to handle lots of forces. The wind loading on your (not-solid) antenna will be very, very low by comparison.
My last sat dish just had some short lag bolts or something. Come to think of it I've got a few old dishes up there now. :( But they always have little custom mounts, not poles, so I'm missing your point I think.
These are the standard DBS mini-dish mounts used by DirecTV and Dish Network, and are found littered around North America at least:

That pipe is pretty short, but you can extend that out to a longer J-pipe to make room for more than just the single dish by itself:

If you're talking about something else, I have no idea what you've got, and certainly can't give you any advice on it.

Re: Nice! (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-09-24 13:33 (#2SW6)

Yeah, that looks right, at least for my older dishes -- thanks! (I mostly see them when I'm trying to unscrew the sliding bolts to repoint the thing with my shoe.) So I can get away with mounting the UHF/VHF to one of the older dishes and not even worry about interference because I'm not even actively using the dishes anymore. And I can leave the new (bigger) DTV setup alone. Great! Again, I thought the bolts holding down those plates would not be sufficient to handle anything taller than the minidish, but I "hear you" about wind forces on the dish.

Thank you, EP. You've saved me some worry and effort. :) Now just to re-read how to mount it properly to that little pole.