It’s been a L-O-N-G time since I conducted tests of indoor TV antennas. More than a year and a half, to be exact. Yet during that time, various samples have been showing up at my door to be added to the “eventually get around to it” pile in my lab.
Well, I eventually DID get around to it. Some downtime this week gave me the motivation to haul out all of those production samples, set up my spectrum analyzer, and also give Channel Master’s new DVR+ ATSC receiver/DVR a workout.
Unlike my past tests, which took place mostly in northern New Jersey, I opted to stay at home this time and give each of the contenders a shakeout in my upstairs office. Indoor DTV reception at my house is by no means easy – my location is over 20 miles from the Philadelphia (Roxborough) TV towers, and according to TVFool.com, I have a 2-Edge path, meaning there are some hills in the way.
Still, there’s enough RF coming into the room to make this test worthwhile. And my timing couldn’t be better, as numerous research reports and news stories show that, slowly but surely, an increasing number of homes are “cutting the cord” and using a combination of free, over-the-air TV with Internet streaming to get their daily fix of video.
A recent report by The Diffusion Group shows that 14% of all broadband homes don’t subscribe to pay TV, up from 9% in 2011. The report states that about 75% of U.S. households now have broadband service, so that means 13 million homes are doing just fine without the likes of DirecTV and Comcast.
Significantly, 2013 was the first year that pay TV companies saw a net loss of subscribers, even though it was only several tens of thousands. But that result flew in the face of experienced analysts who predicted only a few years earlier that consumers would never give up on cable and satellite television subscriptions.
Funny thing about that: At some point, the monthly cost of pay TV channel packages got so high that people reached their breaking point and said, “Enough!” It’s no surprise that Netflix has more subscribers than Comcast, Time-Warner, or any other MSO (50 million and growing in the U.S.). And it’s even less of a surprise that HBO and CBS announced video streaming services last month to reach cord-cutters: They’ve clearly read the writing on the wall.
While those stories are compelling, they’re beyond the scope of this review. So let’s refocus on the task at hand, which is to determine how well each of the test antennas performed with the DVR+.
Mohu, who has developed some pretty clever antenna designs, sent along their Leaf Metro ($24.99) several months ago. This compact package bears a remarkable resemblance to the trusty UHF bow-tie antenna that decorated so many old tube TVs back in the day, and which was eventually dropped from most product lines because (a) it was too inexpensive, and (b) it didn’t look cool enough.
Mohu’s Leaf Ultimate ($69.99, now called the Leaf 50) has also been sitting on the shelf for a while, and I did hook it up for one of my previous antenna tests. Unlike the Metro, the Leaf 50 is an amplified design and uses an external preamp cartridge that installs in-line and uses either USB power from your TV or a supplied wall transformer.
Rounding out the Mohu triumvirate is the Curve 30 ($49.99), another rectangular-shaped flat antenna that sits on a shelf with a supporting bracket. It doesn’t use an amplifier and is intended for close-in (30 miles or less) operation.
From Antennas Direct, we have the ClearStream Eclipse ($59.99) with inline amplifier. It’s not much more than a tapered loop, but what’s unique about this design is the adhesive attached to the front of the loop: Simply peel off the protective backing and stick it on a window. Or wall. (Or an annoying relative who’s fallen asleep on the couch.)
From Winegard, we have the FlatWave Amped ($64.99), a flexible multi-band antenna with preamplifier embedded in the housing, right where the mini coax attaches. Like the Leaf 50, the FlatWave Amped can be attached to just about any non-metallic surface or just hung on a wall.
Finally, just for fun, I threw in an RCA ANT1050 ($12.99) that I had replaced with a Mohu Leaf earlier this year for a friend’s sports collectibles store. This is a strange-looking design, but is basically a pair of folded dipoles in a flexible plastic housing that you can attach to just about any surface.
And for even more fun, I dug up one of my trusty UHF bowtie antennas to use as a “control” for all of my tests. When Radio Shack used to sell these, they cost all of $3.99 a pop. And therein lies the problem – there’s just no money to be made selling these anymore; not when you can get ten times that amount of money for a flexible antenna design.
For this test, I went with a simple but reliable methodology: I set up the bow tie antenna on a small table, in a spot where my spectrum analyzer indicated good signal levels on VHF and UHF. The feed from the bow tie went to a two-way splitter, and two identical 10’ lengths of RG-6 connected from there to the DVR+ and to my analyzer.
After running a channel scan on the CM DVR+, I “looked” at each received channel with the analyzer (and captured numerous screens as JPEGs for reference). Then, I switched the antenna feed over from the analyzer to my Hauppauge Aero-M receiver (plugged into my laptop) and used TS Reader to look at the MPEG stream from each station that was successfully received. If I saw nothing but green bars and a low bit error rate (BER), the station was logged under the “Yes” column. If I saw tiling or signal break-up, it was logged as “Int” for intermittent. And if the station didn’t come in at all, or only briefly, it was pushed to the “No” column.
After testing the bow tie, I repeated this procedure for each review antenna. The Curve antenna used its own support in the same test location, but all other antennas were attached with masking tape to a cardboard box to hold them in place in the “sweet spot.” Not elegant, but effective. (I didn’t remove the adhesive from the ClearStream Eclipse.)
This was about as fair as I could make the test. No antenna was positioned in a more favorable location than any other antenna – I just picked a spot, attached or stood up each antenna, connected it, and tried to watch TV stations, just like the average person would at home. Except they wouldn’t have had the advantage of an analyzer to find the best place to set up.
After logging plenty of transport streams, switching through channels, and grabbing analyzer screens, I came up with the results shown in Table 1. Depending on where you live in the metro Philadelphia area, there are 16 to 18 separate digital TV stations that can be received indoors. Three of them are in the Allentown/Bethlehem area, and one (WNJT) is in Trenton, NJ.
Amazingly, I found 11 stations that were consistently strong with most models – not all – and decided to use those for my test: WPVI-6 (in the no-man’s land of low-band VHF), WBPH-9 and WHYY-12, WPHL-17, KYW-26, WUVP-29, WCAU-34, WYBE-35, WLVT-39, WTXF-42, and WFMZ-46. WBPH-9, WLVT-39, and WFMZ-46 are all up in Allentown, and the rest of the signals come off the Roxborough towers. (Note that the channel numbers given are for each station’s physical (RF) channel, NOT their virtual channel. For example, KYW uses channel 3, while WTXF uses channel 29 and WFMZ uses channel 69. )
A few other stations popped up briefly during scans, but none of the antennas could pull any of these in consistently. I left them out of the test. Even the DVR+ was able to read and capture some elementary PSIP information for these stations, like their virtual channel table (VCT) and call sign. But capturing basic PSIP information doesn’t mean reception was successful.
The most surprising thing I learned from this round of tests was that the cheapest antenna – the bow tie – was also the most reliable. This design was really intended for reception of UHF stations and was intended to clip on to an extended rabbit ear. Yet, it pulled in ten of the eleven test stations without a hitch, having trouble only with WPVI on channel 6. That’s not a surprise at all, given how inefficient a bow tie would be at 86 MHz! (And it was only $3.99!)
There was a two-way tie for 2nd place between the Leaf 50 and FlatWave Amped. Again, not a surprise – both of these antennas have fundamentally good designs based on collinear elements, and their built-in preamplifiers raised signal levels sufficiently to provide a strong signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio. That’s critical for DTV reception, especially with multipath! The Achilles Heel for both antennas was VHF reception; specifically, WPVI-6 and WBPH-9. Channel 12 locked up beautifully as did all of the UHF stations.
The Leaf Metro, which physically resembles a bow tie, came in third with eight stations received successfully and three intermittently. Oddly, those three stations were WBPH-9, WUVP-29, and WTXF-42; it wasn’t an either/or VHF/UHF thing. Maybe some more futzing around with antenna placement would have cleaned things up. But you can’t complain for $30 with this model.
The ClearStream Eclipse and the RCA ANT1050 were both disappointments. Each antenna only pulled in seven solid signals, all in the UHF band. Channel 6 was a no-show on the ANT1050 and troublesome on the Eclipse, and vice-versa for channel 9. The Eclipse, even with an amplifier, couldn’t handle channel 12, but the ANT1050 was happy with it. However, the ANT1050 couldn’t lock up WCAU’s NBC signal on channel 34 (ironic, considering what was once RCA used to own what was once NBC!).
The Mohu Curve, bringing up the rear, was to be truthful kind of a flop. It only snagged five stations successfully – two on VHF and three on UHF – while passing on some easy, strong channels like WPHL-17 and WCAU-34. It also had trouble with WPVI’s broadcast on channel 6.
Again, it might take some futzing around to improve reception with this model, which is probably better used within a 10-to-15-mile-radius around the TV towers and not 15+ miles away. This isn’t the first time I’ve tested a decorative or camouflaged antenna – RCA had a curved picture frame model about ten years ago – and they usually come up short for some odd reason.
OK, everyone can stop nagging me now. I tested every antenna I could find, save for an Australian model that must have come in some time ago and had a PAL-type RF connector for which I had no appropriate adapter. Most of these antennas deliver the goods: I’ve always been a big fan of the basic Mohu Leaf design, despite its lack of gain at VHF frequencies. It’s unobtrusive and works very well.
Winegard’s FlatWave, the answer to the Leaf, also pulls its weight. Both it and the Leaf scored highly in my last test of indoor antennas in March of 2013. (Wow, was it REALLY that long ago?) And things only got better with the amplified versions of each model. I didn’t see a significant degradation of the noise floor here when they were switched on (< 2 dB) and they made a difference on the weaker signals. Use either of these if you are 15 – 30 miles out from the TV transmitters and have a reasonably clear reception path, i.e. maybe a small hill or some buildings in the way.
The Metro has everything – good performance in a small, inexpensive package. I’d recommend this one for city dwellers, and you shouldn’t need any additional amplification. Closer to the transmitter, it should pick up low-band VHF stations nicely, but since there are only about 45 of them in the entire country, that’s not a big issue for the average user.
I can’t recommend any of the last three models, given how many strong stations they couldn’t pull in. The Curve is best used by city dwellers or close-in suburbs, but only if you want to make a fashion statement. Otherwise, go with the Metro and stick it on the wall or in a window. The ANT1050 is certainly cheap, but missed too many easy stations. And the Eclipse is clearly challenged with low-band and high-band VHF reception.
Still, isn’t it amazing how well the bow tie antenna worked? If you can’t find one at a flea market or surplus store, you can make your own easily enough – there are several Web sites that show you how to do it. And your cash outlay will be minimal. Gosh, $3.99 won’t even buy you a tall coffee at Starbucks these days…
CONCLUSIONS: CHANNEL MASTER DVR+
This product isn’t getting as much attention as it should. The super-flat DVR+ (not much thicker than a Leaf or FlatWave) has a full ATSC receiver and dual DVRs. It uses the program guide transmitted by each digital TV station to show you what’s on and to set up recordings.
Two accessory USB ports are provided for a Wi-Fi adapter and external storage (internal storage of 16 GB amounts to only about 2 hours of recording). There’s also an RJ-45 port for wired Ethernet connections, helpful when your box does a software update. The connection to your TV is through HDMI with embedded audio, and a separate optical port is provided for AV receivers.
The DVR+ isn’t nearly as fast at scanning for channels as the LG 47” TV I have in the same room, but it eventually finds them all. The receiver locks up quickly on clean VSB signals, making it a perfect receiver for my antenna tests. CM has also included direct connections to Vudu and Pandora through their program guide (powered by Rovi!), although Netflix probably would have been a wise addition considering their streaming video market dominance.
I’ve used the DVR+ to record blocks of CBS programs whose schedules are thrown out of whack by late-starting Sunday NFL games that end somewhere in the vicinity of 8 PM EST, and its multi-speed fast-forward/reverse search works quite well, even if it doesn’t have the tactile feedback of a TiVo DVR. Of course, the DVR+ is a LOT cheaper at $250 and there’s no monthly fee for program guide information, as it comes automatically from each TV station.
Given the paucity of conventional set-top boxes for off-air reception, this is one of your better choices and sure beats watching HDTV on your phone, tablet, or computer. Let’s face it; Tom Brady’s Patriots vs. Payton Manning’s Broncos is a lot more compelling on a big screen TV than an iPad!
See you next time I get a pile of antennas…
Editor’s note: Channel Master also offers a 1 TB version of the DVR+ for $399.
Posted by Pete Putman, November 5, 2014 7:53 PM
About Pete PutmanPeter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.
Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.