How to install an HD antenna for free TV

A TV antenna used to mean spindly pairs of telescoping metal rods (“rabbit ears”) that required clever positioning, maybe a little aluminum foil, and sometimes a few interpretive dance moves to get them to work. Fun! Today, modern technology has whisked antennas into the 21st century. The most popular types today look more like a sheet of paper than a robot rabbit’s noggin, and offer high-quality HD broadcasts that not only top video streamed over the internet from services like SlingTV, PlayStation Vue, and others, but also best even cable or satellite services.

You’d think, then, that choosing an antenna and installing it is a process that would also benefit from modernization. Yeah, that’s we thought, too.

But when we got to evaluating various brands and styles, we learned that picking the right antenna and finding the best place to put it is still one part science, two parts voodoo. The key to success is to manage your expectations and prepare yourself for a little trial and error. In the end, a little effort goes a long way, and we think it’s totally worth it. Here are some tips on how to install a TV antenna in your home, as well as hunt down the perfect one for where you live.

Get the lay of the land

You can get a general sense of where you’ll want to put your antenna by visiting sites like Antennaweb.org. Plug in your ZIP code and street address and the site will show the locations of local TV broadcast antennas relative to your home. It also attempts to suggest which type of antenna you might need (medium multidirectional, small directional, amplified, etc.).

Picking the right antenna is still one part science, two parts voodoo.

We’ve had mixed results with the antenna-type suggestion tool. For instance, at our address, a medium-sized directional antenna would appear to be the right choice. Yet, we can pull in nearly every station available with a small, multidirectional antenna. If you live in or around a major metropolitan area, you may also find this to be the case.

Once you know where the broadcast antennas are, consider the geographical landscape between those towers and your home. If there are any large, high-elevation objects within your line of sight, or if you live in a deep valley, you may find that you’ll need to place your antenna in the attic, on the roof, or even up in a tree to get solid reception. Conversely, if you live in an elevated area, you may find you can easily pull in a great signal, even from far away.

If you live in a downtown area where there are a lot of high-rise buildings, all bets are off. This is because most of the signals you pull in will be reflected off of other buildings, and there’s no telling where they’ll come from. This doesn’t mean you can’t get reception, it just means you may not be able to get all channels from any single antenna placement.

Picking an antenna

If you’ve done any research at all, you know there are a lot of antennas to choose from, but in our experience, we’ve had the best results using models from Mohu, Clearstream, and Channel Master. We suggest you check out our frequently updated list of the best indoor HD antennas, which includes the best models we’ve reviewed recently (plus an outdoor model or two, to boot).

If you’re shopping around more generally, however, here are some basic tips to guide you in your search.

The first is reception direction. By and large, most antennas on the market these days are omnidirectional, meaning they can pick up signals regardless of which way they’re facing. That said, some only receive signals from one or two directions. Keep in mind which direction(s) nearby broadcast towers are in relation to your home, and look for antennas that can be easily mounted for the best possible reception.

While the reception direction is important, don’t forget to pay attention to the reception range as well. Most antennas will likely pick up channels if you live in metro or suburban areas, but things get less certain the farther away you live from signal towers. Again, you can find the distance to your nearest broadcast point(s) using the antennaweb tool.

You’ll generally find antennas with 20, 30, 40, or 50-mile reception ratings, but be aware that the ranges listed by manufacturers are only estimates and may not be fully accurate as there are no universal testing criteria, not to mention that environmental factors will impact reception. As long as you’re well within an antenna’s listed operating range, you should be fine, but if you’re on the edge it’s better to go for something with broader reception.

Speaking of reception, amplified antennas may help, but the term “amplified” can be misleading. Essentially, the amplifiers built into these antennas make weak signals stronger so your TV’s tuner will more accurately recognize it. Amplifiers don’t improve reception quality, however. In fact, it’s not recommended to use an amplifier when it is not necessary. This can actually degrade the signal you send your television, which means worse picture quality. In general, amplifiers are only a good idea if you live 50 miles or more from broadcast towers, or if you’re pushing the signal from a single antenna out to multiple TVs. If you happen to live very far out from a tower, an outdoor antenna may be a better choice, anyway.

Outdoor antennas are generally bigger and more durable than their indoor counterparts, and while being outside and mounted to a roof might grant them better reception than even an amplified indoor model, they’re going to cost you. In some instances, an outdoor antenna might be the right pick — especially if you live in rural areas, or if your home can accommodate one. Otherwise, an indoor model will work just fine.

The last thing to keep in mind is the signal type an antenna can pick up. There are two main signal types: VHF and UHF. The difference between the two essentially comes down to which channels are broadcast in those frequencies. VHF covers channels 2-13, while 14-51 are UHF. The good news is that most antennas pick up both VHF and UHF just fine, but there are some that can only pick up one signal type or the other, and some antennas may be better at picking up one over the other. This information is usually clearly noted in the product descriptions.

Where do I put this thing?

This is the part where you need to embrace the practice of trial and error. There are so many factors that play into broadcast-signal reception that the best place for your antenna might be the last place you’d think to put it. With that said, we do have some general guidelines to offer:

  • Closest to the broadcast towers — Generally, you should be better off trying to capture a direct signal rather than one reflected off your neighbor’s house.
  • In a window — The portion without the metal screen tends to work best.
  • High on a wall — Conventional wisdom suggests higher is better.
  • Behind the TV — If you’ve got no problems pulling in reception, a tiny antenna like the Mohu Metro or HD Frequency Mini can be hidden right behind a TV. We’ve gotten better results placing the antenna toward the top of the TV rather than the bottom, where the TV’s electronics tend to live.
  • Outside — There are both indoor-outdoor hybrids and dedicated outdoor antennas that can be tacked onto your home’s siding (see our first placement tip), mounted on your rooftop, or even out in the yard. These can often be tied into a home’s existing co-axial cable block, allowing for the signal to be split to several rooms. If you do so, you may want to use an amplified splitter to maintain signal integrity.

Once you’ve picked a general location, or if you just want to experiment with several locations, connect your antenna to your TV and set it to scan for channels. Based on your search at Antennaweb.org, you should know how many channels are in your area. When your TV is done scanning, it should not only tell you how many channels it has found but which ones are locked in. If you see any missing channels, try a different location and re-scan. Rinse and repeat until you’ve found the best possible location.

Special note: If you live out in the boonies, you’ll need to elevate your antenna, which means buying a mast, mast mount, and a long length of coaxial cable — and doing some climbing. How high the antenna must be mounted will depend on your situation. See anyone else around with an antenna set up? You probably need to go as high.

Customize your channel list

Chances are, you are going to wind up scanning and programming channels you have absolutely zero interest in receiving. Most TVs allow you to add or delete channels from your list manually. Make channel flipping a little easier by ditching the ones you don’t want. If you’re a Plex user, you can also connect your antenna to your Plex server with a TV tuner, creating a sort of makeshift TV service complete with DVR.

Freedom

That’s it! We hope this little guide has been helpful. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. We think you’ll find the picture quality you get with broadcast HD is far better than what you get from your cable or satellite company. In fact, since it’s uncompressed, it will likely be the best picture you get outside of UHD Blu-ray discs. Some manufacturers are even future-proofing their antennas with 4K support, so those who have a 4K UHD TV will even get to take full advantage of their TV’s ultra-high definition capabilities.

Home Theater

What are HDMI ARC and eARC? Here’s how they can simplify your home theater

HDMI ARC is one of the coolest TV features at your disposal. But if you're like most folks, you have no idea how it works, if you even know what it is at all. Here's our primer on HDMI ARC and how it can make your life easier.
Home Theater

Get your favorite sports in 4K and HDR with live TV streaming service FuboTV

If you’re looking for a live TV streaming service, but sports are the main draw for you, FuboTV could be exactly what you’re looking for. We’ve got everything you need to know about it right here.
Home Theater

Cutting the cord? Let us help you find the best service for live TV streaming

There's a long list of live TV streaming services available to help you cut the cord and replace your traditional TV subscription. Each is different in important ways, and this guide will help you find the best one for you.
Home Theater

Any night can be a night at the movies with the best home theater projectors

Are you sick and tired of those cumbersome big screen TVs? Don’t want to spend big for a huge TV? These home theater projectors will bring you that big screen experience without breaking the bank.
Movies & TV

The best new movie trailers: ‘T-34,’ ‘An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn,’ and more

Everyone loves a good trailer, but keeping up with what's new isn't easy. To simplify things, we round up the best ones each week. On tap this week: The trailers for An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn and T-34, among other movie previews.
Movies & TV

Stay inside (and in the dark) with the best horror movies on Netflix right now

There's no need to scour the entire Netflix catalog for the hits. We've compiled a list of the best horror movies on Netflix, whether you're into modern monsters or classic scares.
Movies & TV

Brewing nightmare fuel with the FX team behind the ‘Stranger Things’ Demogorgon

Mike Elizalde, co-founder of makeup and creature effects studio Spectral Motion, explains how his team brought the Demogorgon from Stranger Things and Robot from Lost in Space to terrifying, compelling life on the screen.
Home Theater

Bowers & Wilkins’ affordable 600 Series speakers sound better than ever

Bowers & Wilkins has revamped its entry-level speaker lineup, borrowing some goodness from the company's flagship 800 Series speakers, which brings a more refined sound signature while keeping impressively low price points. What's not to…
Home Theater

Google has a new Chromecast on the way, but don’t expect a major leap forward

An FCC filing by Google shows that the company is planning to release an updated model of its highly popular Chromecast streaming hardware, but you might not even notice to look at it.
Home Theater

Images found in a beta of iOS 12 reveal the next-generation AirPods 2

Apple plans to release new AirPods much the same as it does new iPhones, and a wireless charging case, water resistance, and better Siri integration are among the improvements we can expect in future models.
Home Theater

Demystify home audio with our ultimate A/V receiver buying guide

Today's A/V receivers are packed with lots of advanced technology and just plain cool features. From understanding watt ratings to Wi-Fi, we explain how to buy one that will last you for years in our ultimate A/V receiver buying guide.
Music

Bolster your HD music catalog with the best high-res audio sites

Music connoisseurs relish HD audio, but scouring the web for all the best streaming and downloading sites can be a pain. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Check out our list, and let the high-resolution good times roll.
Home Theater

Need to get rid of an unused Netflix profile? Here's what to do

Need to delete an unwanted profile from your Netflix account? It's easy to do, no matter what kind of equipment you've got. Check out our handy how-to guide for step-by-step instructions.
Home Theater

Our quick-and-easy guide to programming an RCA universal remote

If you're tired of using a million different remotes in your home theater, office, or living room, you'll likely be interested in a single RCA universal remote. Here's how to program it for your system.