How to Get Better Indoor TV Antenna Reception

Just like in retail, what matters is location, location, location

Antenna Photo: Consumer Reports

Given the steep rate of inflation, many of us are thinking about ways to trim our monthly budgets. One option is cutting the cord, swapping your pricey cable service for an indoor TV antenna and free over-the-air television. If so, you’ll want to make sure you can get decent reception. And just like in real estate, indoor TV antenna reception is all about location, location, location. That goes for both where you live and where you place your antenna.

We can’t help with the geography, but we do have tips on how to get the best reception possible in your home.

In some ways, using an antenna is easier than it used to be. Ever since the move to all-digital TV, over-the-air signals tend not to attenuate, or drop off, the way analog signals did. That means the days of attaching tin foil to an antenna’s rabbit ears to improve reception on marginal stations are gone.

More on Antennas & Watching TV

Once you have your antenna set up correctly, you may find that the quality of the stations you receive is better than it was with old analog TV broadcasts—and perhaps even better than cable. If you live near a major TV market, there’s a good chance you can receive many local networks, such as ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, and Telemundo.

Outdoor antennas, especially those on a roof or mast, generally offer the best performance, particularly if you’re many miles from the nearest broadcast towers. But an indoor TV antenna is easier to set up, and for some people it’s the only practical option.

Getting great reception from an indoor antenna can be a mix of science and art, though. Here’s what you need to do.

Play the Field

In our latest tests of 19 top-selling indoor TV antennas, reception depended mainly on how far we were from broadcast towers, plus the terrain and details of our surroundings, such as houses, buildings, trees, and so on. Some models worked better than others, but it was hard to predict which antenna would perform best in any particular location. We conducted the tests at 10 homes spread across the New York City metropolitan area.

A number of models are directional, so they need to be oriented toward broadcast towers. Multidirectional antennas, which receive signals from all directions, might be better for urban locations, but they might not pull in the more distant stations a properly positioned directional antenna could.

One surprise was that we found little correlation between price and performance; often cheaper antennas did as well as, or better than, more expensive models.

So here’s our advice: Try a few different antennas to see which one works best. To do that, you need to buy from a retailer that offers a no-hassle return policy and reasonable warranty.

Go High

We’ve found that the height of your antenna is among the most critical factors in getting decent reception; that’s one reason roof-mounted antennas typically outperform indoor models. It’s also why you probably won’t get good reception using an antenna placed in your basement.

If possible, place your indoor TV antenna in an attic or a second-story location, preferably by a window. Sometimes objects in the room or roofing materials will interfere with the signals, so it pays to try a few different attic locations. Of course, having the antenna in one room and the TV in another requires running a cable through your home because the antenna needs to be connected to the antenna (RF) input on your set.

In reality, most people will place the antenna in the same room as the TV. So try a few higher locations in the room, such as along the wall near the ceiling. Some of the newer flat antennas, such as the Mohu Leaf, can be painted (using a non-metallic paint), allowing them to blend in with the décor. Some flat models, such as the Winegard FL5500A FlatWave Amplified, are reversible, typically black on one side and white on the other.

Point It

Some antennas are directional (these are also called “unidirectional” antennas), which means they need to be oriented toward a broadcast tower.

To find out where the local broadcast towers are in your area, go to the FCC’s DTV antenna map, then click on the station’s call letters to see where the signals are coming from. You’ll also be able to determine how many stations you should be able to pull in and their relative signal strength. You can also get useful advice and information, including tips on outdoor antennas, from AntennaWeb.

Once you know where the towers are, you can point the antenna in that direction. If you live in the suburbs of a big city, all the major broadcast towers may lie in the same direction, but you may need to reorient the antenna for different stations. As noted above, a multidirectional antenna doesn’t need to be aimed, but it might not be as effective at picking up signals from distant towers.

When you’re trying out different antennas, be sure to scan through the channels on your TV to see which antenna location pulls in the most stations.

Strike Up the Bands

Back in the analog TV signal days, most of your major broadcast channels, say, 2 through 13, were located in the lower-frequency VHF band.

But ever since the transition to all-digital broadcasts, and the subsequent spectrum auction that saw many stations shift locations, local channels are now on both VHF and UHF (channels 14 to 51) and VHF bands. So you want an antenna that does well with both bands to make sure that you’ll get all the stations you can.

Stop Interference

Anything that stands between an indoor TV antenna and the broadcast towers can degrade your reception. If possible, try placing the antenna in or near a window, provided you don’t live in an apartment building where your “view” consists of a neighboring building’s brick wall.

The second best choice is an external wall that faces the broadcast towers. If you live in a house, try to avoid a location that might be obscured by large trees, a shed or garage, or other large obstructions. Try a few different windows and walls to find the best spot.

When testing indoor TV antennas in my home, I found that it was handy to have an extra length of RG6 coaxial cable—and a female-to-female coax cable joiner—so that I could freely move the antenna to different locations. I also used some painter’s tape to temporarily attach the antennas to the various locations before determining the best spot.

Try an Amp

Many of the models we tested had an amplifier, which can boost signal strength to help pull in more distant stations. An amplifier can also be helpful if you intend to split the signal from one antenna to feed two TVs.

But our tests showed that amplified antennas weren’t always more effective than nonamplified models—they can also amplify noise and distortion, and overload reception from closer stations.

If you have an amplified antenna, try it with the amplifier turned off. If reception is good, leave it off. But if that doesn’t work well, turn the amp on and rescan the channels (see below) to test whether reception improves.

Rescan for Channels

One last tip: Rescan for channels periodically. Even though the spectrum auction—and the subsequent shifting of channels to new frequencies—is now complete, it still makes sense to rescan for channels every month or so because you might get some new stations that you couldn’t pick up earlier. We have step-by-step instructions on rescanning for channels; it can seem a bit tricky, but it doesn’t take long.

James K. Willcox

I've been a tech journalist for more years than I'm willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I've not yet figured out how to safely combine.