The OTA Flatenna Showdown

Dave Zatz —  February 7, 2015

hdtv-antennas

As many contemplate cutting the cord for basic, yet high-definition television viewing, or to perhaps augment cable with advanced over-the-air capabilities, as we’ve done with Tablo, finding a great antenna is paramount. Most are probably best served by roof-top or attic placement, yet it’s the least practical for a variety of reasons. While Mohu may have pioneered the “flatenna” several others have joined the fray. And I reached out to a few players in this space that have kindly provided their least obtrusive indoor antenna offerings for an OTA receptivity showdown. Which will wear the crown of best indoor antenna?

Comparing antennas is an exceedingly difficult task, as our individual locations in relation to the broadcast towers obviously vary in terms of distance and interference (either within the home or the environment). Not to mention, different stations around the country broadcast with differing strengths and frequencies. To make matters even more complex, not all tuners are not created equal — meaning the televisions, over-the-air DVRs, and other devices we each possess will have varying degrees of reception. So your mileage will absolutely vary from mine. Most small, indoor antennas are rated for receptivity in the 25-35 mile range, but those that are offered with amplification can be extended to 50ish.

mohu-ipad-stand

Primary testing was done using a 22″ Vizio television with what I’d call a typical tuner – not the worst, not the best. In our home, the best antenna reception is achieved via the front rooms which have a northwest exposure, but with what seems like a clearer line of sight to the east where most of the towers are located. The back of the house and the basement are more challenging. Indeed, according to AntennaWeb, some of the stations I’d like to receive would theoretically require an outdoor antenna and/or amp. Fortunately, I was able to prove them wrong in some cases. Lastly, the antennas below generally performed better in a vertical orientation over laying flat – especially in the back of the home.

Mohu Leaf ($40)
In my environment, in terms of form and function, the Mohu is the hands down winner. In the front breakfast nook, it tied for pulling in the most stations at 37, including the critical four majors (NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS). It was also the best performer in the more difficult areas of the house by a comfortable margin. The Leaf ties for smallest footprint and is white/black reversible which helps for unobtrusive placement. Related, there are two holes at the top corners with pins provided for quick and easy wall mounting.

Channel Master Flatenna ($10)
In the front of the house, Channel Master went toe-to-toe with Mohu, pulling in 37 stations, and at $10 (shipped free!) it’s ridiculously cheap. However, the antenna material is flimsier than Mohu and reception is not nearly as good in the back of the house and basement, especially when horizontal. But, did I mention it’s only $10?? And it does come with a square of adhesive for wall mounting.

HD Frequency CC Mini ($40)
This antenna provides the most distinctive look, which could be a bonus in many homes, and clocked in with a respectable 32 channels from the front of the home. Once again, your mileage will vary. But, of this roundup, they alone ship with premium RG-6 coaxial cable which may help attenuate in different environments and the included clear 3M Command Strip hook is a nice perk. Further, HD Frequency offers larger models with presumably even better reception.

Winegard FlatWave Amped ($65)
The Flatwave is the only antenna I looked at with a USB-powered amp, although Mohu provides similar. But, surprisingly, it pulled in fewer channels than the other contenders — 27-30 up front. And this probably reinforces that every situation is going to be somewhat unique and you should buy your antenna from a merchant with a good return policy (unless it’s that disposable $10 Channel Master). The entire FlatWave line ships with 3M Command Strips, for possibly the least destructive mounting option, and is also black/white reversible.

23 responses to The OTA Flatenna Showdown

  1. I can second the “your mileage will vary” – the Winegard (refurbed from Amazon) has actually been the best antenna I’ve had in the seven years I’ve been playing with OTA. I’m getting about 40 channels with it in metro Detroit, and I’m ~18 miles from the major broadcast antennas (interestingly, I get less channels when I mount it directly to a window as opposed to the wall next to the window).

  2. Bought the Channel Master Flatenna for my adult daughter along with their DVR product. Works perfectly for her in the nearby suburbs of Kansas City, MO and the price was pretty impossible to beat.

  3. Thanks for the test. In my south Jersey home I tried the Waltenna and Leaf without success. Neither would pull in the local high VHF PBS affiliate nor the CBS affiliate. The dropouts during Survivor and Sunday Morning forced me to step up to a rooftop antenna. Long live the $9.99 over the air Tivo service fee.

  4. William C Bonner February 7, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    Thanks for the coverage. I’ve had the RCA ANT1650F Flat Digital Amplified Indoor TV Antenna for several years, but my location in downtown seattle has meant that I couldn’t find an antenna location that could receive all of my local stations at the same time.

    I recently bout both the Mohu Leaf and the Mohu Metro to see if the more modern looking antenna would get better reception and I could ditch cable.

    What I learned was that the Leaf is much easier to hang on the wall than the RCA, but didn’t get noticably better reception than the Leaf.

    The other thing I realized is that my new Vizio 55″ TV does not have a signal strength meter when tuning over the TV.

    Some of my problems are likely signal corruption versus signal strength.

    Wim.

  5. I’m amazed folks are still using flatennas. Everyone I know is using tethered blimps. You can get excellent results with a blimp around 200 – 300 ft above your home, tethered by extra-strength coax cable.

  6. Thanks for the reviews. I’ve messed around with the flat antennas, but none of them have yet to beat the Radio Shack budget antenna (loop and rabbit ears), even for mostly UHF stations. It’s not that ugly…

  7. Steve, I hear ya. I’ve conducted a variety of tech projects using tiny little extendable, metal antennas … that shipped with TV tuner cards I acquired years ago.

    William, with RCA or Mohu, have you tried different locations and different angles towards or perpendicular to the broadcast towers?

  8. careful everyone – Chucky just wants to hang billboard ads from the blimps

  9. “careful everyone – Chucky just wants to hang billboard ads from the blimps”

    Good guess. But I currently monetize purely by selling repair drones. The wind does ugly things to the cable tether connection on the blimps. Though I will have to look into ads too…

  10. Dave, I’m curious if your experiment included changing the orientation of the antennas to maximize the number of channels. Also curious if you are counting subchannels as individual channels. Finally, does your Vizio TV provide any type of received signal strength measure, and if so did you compare signal strength of a given channel using the different antennas.

    My location near Rochester, NY, has a large hill that blocks line of sight to the local antenna towers, so I have a large directional antenna on the roof of my two story house aimed towards the towers. There is one splitter on the coax to feed two TV receivers, and during the winter (no tree leaves!) I can bring in channels from the six local normal power transmitters. It’s interesting that before I installed the antenna on the roof I tried it from ground level and did not get nearly as good reception. I am sure that I could re-aim the antenna to bring in some distant stations, but for the most part those stations would probably be affiliated with networks I already receive so why bother.

  11. I live in Birmingham Al and after cutting the cable I switched to tivo roamio OTA. I went through 3 indoor antennas 2 of which cost over $100 before finally hooking up a $30 rca outdoor antenna. The RCA outdoor is small discreet and easy to setup and workes everytime. My suggestion is to those thinking about OTA skip the indoor antennas altogether if at all possible. If outdoor is not an option depending on your location you may end up disappointed even with the best indoor.

  12. HD Frequency reached out given the middle photo displays the premium coax cable that ships with the Cable Cutter Mini attached to the Mohu Leaf with concerns it invalidates my testing. That was a mistake on my part for one round. However, Mohu’s lesser coax just provided similar results (plus I’ve had the Mohu around for a much longer period of testing that predates the recent arrival of the CC Mini).

    Having said all that, I am interested in running more tests in the back of the home and with a different tuner. This Vizio set continues to be quirky… I asked HQ Frequency for assistance devising a more authentic and reliable evaluation to better serve you.

  13. dwgsp, you comment had been caught in moderation and I just cleared it.

    I can definitely change my reception via placement – whether it be angle, location in the house, by a window, near metal in the wall, etc. Anywhere other than the “front” for example, I pretty much have to choose which of the big four I want – I can’t have all, except for some very select placements. For the purposes of this testing and given similar flat designs, I focused on the same horizontal and vertical placement at the same locations. And perhaps focusing testing from one of the “best” areas was a mistake – maybe it’d have been more useful to get more granular performance data from the harder areas. Although, if I were to contemplate full-time OTA, versus augmenting cable, I’d most likely go with a larger attic antenna and distribute around given the inconsistency.

    Do you have an amplifier in play?

    The Vizio doesn’t display signal strength, but that’s a good point despite in practical terms that it’s mostly binary (versus the old, analog days) – I do have another device here that probably does. Could be worth revisiting if I conduct more testing in the back and/or expand the pool of entrants. I did include the sub channels, simply because it was most efficient although they may be of lesser value (and lower def) generally speaking.

  14. I asked about orientation because I wondered how directional these flat antenna are, and if they all receive the strongest signal when oriented the same way. I could look up the plots, but sometimes real world experience is more interesting. I agree that in the digital age reception is binary (a station either comes in or it doesn’t), but signal strength as seen by the antenna will vary based on the gain and frequency range of the antenna. A VHF-only antenna may not be of much use to someone whose local stations transmit in the UHF band (though some VHF antennas have okay UHF reception).

    Our antenna is a Channel Master CM 4228. We don’t use an amplifier, and the signal strength as shown on my TivoHD is 90+ for all of my local transmitters (which happen to be co-located on the same hill). There is a regional transmitter located farther away that is about 45 degrees off axis that we can only receive during the winter months (no tree leaves to absorb the signal). In hindsight we probably could have gone with a smaller less directional antenna mounted in the same location, but except for that one transmitter our reception is flawless which makes my wife very happy.

  15. At least three of these four have marketed themselves as ‘omnidirectional’ … but there’s still better orientations than others in my experience. I actually had better ATSC HD reception prior to the official digital cutover, when stations finalized their moves (often from UHF to VHF). Of course, that was several addresses ago, several years ago, and some have partially bounced back by petitioning for stronger broadcast signals.

    By the by, I do have a 4-tuner Premiere in the below-ground basement. But I’m not moving it nor messing with my day-to-day setup for this particular project. :) I have at least one or two other things that should be able discern strength. If the post has staying power, I’ll expand upon it.

    By the by, Adam uses a Mohu Curve with his Tablo TV. He feels the reception is equivalent to the Leaf it replaced and I assume he stuck with it for the aesthetics.

  16. I’m in Rochester too. I am close to the towers ~4 miles to the north east. I think my lower floor is blocked by a highway (590). The Mohu does a great job, but I think the vintage of your tv makes a big difference. My new LG pulls in stations with the worst antenna I own.

    Rochester has a problem to the north as the lake is there. They broadcast less power in that direction. I have used a cheapo flat antenna on a portable tv to pull in stations 20 miles out, also to north and east.

    I have the winegard too, I split it to a couple of different sources. The Mohu and Winegard are in the same room, the Mohu on an east facing wall and the other South as high on the wall as possible.

  17. “These things are impossible to review – way too many variables. Takeaway is that antennas should probably be on the roof.”

    I continue to assert that my solution is far simpler than mucking around on the roof.

  18. My local market has transmitters 15 miles (NBC, PBS) & 35 miles (everyone else) away.

    IMHO, forget even amplified indoor antennas if transmitters are over 25-30 miles away.

    Putting a 8-bay UHF antenna ($60 delivered via ebay) in the attic finally solved my reception issues.

  19. Despite my better judgement ;) it looks like I’ll be expanding the pool. Not sure exactly when the gear will arrive and I’ll actually run the additional tests. Plus, the bottom line remains the same – your mileage will vary, root-top antennas are better. But we’ll keep it going! Also in about a month, the new Tablo with builtin dual switching antennas will be released – maybe we can get that covered too.

  20. I picked up this one:
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00DIFIO8E/ref=oh_aui_search_detailpage?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    Works fine for my location and there’s an amplified one if you need it.

    I get occasional pixelating off of it and I needed to put it on a window, not just an interior wall, to get satisfactory results.

    When placing these, I recommend you use that blue painters tape to tape it to your window or wall as I found that a shift of a few inches would make a difference.

  21. Atmospheric changes may also make a difference as CNET’s John Falcone tweets. And it’s true – without changing a thing, hour to hour, day to day, my channel count can vary. Also makes me wonder if most of these flatennas are equivalent. I got at least two more (not-quite-flat) entrants en route – should arrive late this week or next.

  22. I’m not a sports nut so this is from that perspective:

    My flat antennas, mounted to my windows, work pretty well. I’d put them in the 85% working category and, depending upon conditions, sometimes they pixelate.

    That being said, I don’t care when they pixelate. There is nothing on network TV that I’m missing where the pixelation matters.

    If I were a sports nut then I’d really have to weigh out the pixelation vs cost of cable.

    As it is, and this is weird coming from someone who grew up on TV and thought TV was awesome, my TV is off most of the time. I may watch a rerun of Big Bang Theory or watch a movie on it once in a while but, largely, the TV remains off.

    I couldn’t tell you any of the popular shows right now.

  23. are there any apps to watch over the air progams abc nbc etc. on my samsung tab