The cord-cutter's guide to the best indoor antennas

Indoor antennas are pretty cheap, but our tests of six popular models did reveal some differences. Here's how they stack up.

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You don't need to spend much money to get free TV. Indoor antennas cost as little as $10 and let you watch free TV programs over the air with your current television.

That's music to the ears of cord cutters looking to ditch that big cable TV bill. The next question, of course, is, "Which antenna should I buy?"

We have an answer. We tested six different indoor antennas with prices ranging from $7 to $60 and found the best ones were able to pull more channels and a stronger, more watchable signal on "problem" stations. And as savvy buyers might have guessed, paying more didn't guarantee better performance in our tests.

The winners?

Want more info? Read on.

The scene is set

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Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

The six antennas we tested in order of price were:

  • RCA Indoor HDTV antenna $7
  • Channel Master Flatenna $10
  • Mohu ReLeaf $40
  • RCA SLVR $45
  • Channel Master Smartenna $59
  • Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse $59 (the Amplified version is $79)

Two of those models -- RCA SLVR and the Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse -- came with gain-boosting amplifiers. But we found you need to use a gain amplifier with care as you could actually end up with worse reception. We tested each applicable antenna with and without the attached amplifier.

We tested the antennas in the city and in the suburbs: in uptown Manhattan, with a 5 mile line-of-sight (LOS) to a broadcast antenna, and in suburban Long Island, 9 miles from the closest antenna but without LOS. Be aware that you might receive broadcasts from multiple antennas depending on your location, and hills or large buildings in the way will have an effect on which channels you receive.

We connected each antenna, each located in the same spot as the last where possible, to the Channel Master DVR+ which offers signal strength data as well as a total channel count. We used two different metrics to determine which antenna performed best. The first was a raw measure of the number of channels it could detect, while the second involved a number of predetermined "problem channels". For these we consulted a list of channels culled from various forums, for both testing areas, and gauged how well the antennas pulled in each channel.

Our list of "problem" channels in Manhattan was WABC 7.1 (ABC), WNET 13.1 (PBS), WPIX 11.1 (CW) and WNJB 58.1 (PBS). In Long Island we tested WNYW 5.1 (FOX), WABC 8.1 (ABC), WWOR 9.2 (My9), WLIW 21.1 (PBS), WVIT 30.1 (NBC) and WLNY 55.1 (CBS).

While the results will vary depending on where you live, we found that, for example, the extra couple of channels the best models received were generally radio broadcasts and further Spanish language offerings.

Most of the antennas are based around the same rectangular design, but there was one important consideration: the cable. Did the antenna have a long cable, or even better, a detachable one? You'll be sticking one of these in your window and it's likely a long way from your TV, so longer is better.

Installing an indoor antenna

While the Eclipse included adhesives in the pack most of these antennas didn't. As a result you'll need some good adhesive to hold these on your window or wall. We first tried gaffer tape, and while it worked it left greasy marks on the window. Masking tape wasn't very effective at holding the antenna up. Try packing tape or poster putty instead. Larger antennas such as the Smartenna will need to be screwed onto a wall and come with keyhole slots in the back for this.

You'll definitely need to experiment with the placement, as a wall may actually be better than a window depending on the orientation of your living room. Also, keep the antenna away from magnetic metals such as security bars or the like, if possible, as they can interfere with your signal.

If you buy something with a short, captive lead like the Channel Master Flatenna or either of the RCA models, you may need to buy a male-female extension lead to get it to reach.

The antennas

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Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse Amplified.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse/Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse Amplified

  • Cost: $59/$79
  • Cable detachable: Yes
  • Number of channels: 75 (Manhattan), 46 (Long Island)
  • Number of channels with amp: 49 (Manhattan), 47 (Long Island)

One of these things is not like the others. With its ankh-like looks and reversible design it's definitely unique. It also comes with sticky tabs to attach it to your window, which is very handy.

Of all of the models here the base version offered the most channels and some of the strongest reception. This is our pick of the bunch, and if you need the extra oomph you can spring for the amplifier as well.

As you can see from the results adding the amp helped in our Long Island location but cut the number of channels in Manhattan by a third. As well as pulling in more channels it also improved the strength of the channels it received in the suburbs. It made the local NBC watchable, for example.

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The Channel Master Flatenna

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Channel Master Flatenna

  • Cost: $10
  • Cable length: 6 feet
  • Cable detachable: No
  • Cable length: 6 feet
  • Number of channels: 69 (Manhattan), 38 (Long Island)

This antenna feels flimsier than the Leaf it is based on -- it's a black plastic sheet with a captive cable -- and the cord that is attached is rather short at 6 feet long. If you want a longer cable you'll need to buy a coax adapter.

Yet despite its bargain price and cheap-feeling construction the Channel Master Flatenna was actually one of the better performers. It managed to pull more channels in Manhattan than both the ReLeaf and the more expensive ChannelMaster product. While the Antennas Direct Eclipse is better, this antenna has become our budget pick.

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Channel Master Smartenna.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

Channel Master Smartenna

  • Cost: $59
  • Cable detachable: Yes
  • Number of channels: 63 (Manhattan), 45 (Long Island)

The Smartenna is larger than most indoor types, and is even larger than Channel Master's own DVR product. It measures 13 inches wide by 11 inches high and 1.5 inches thick, and at 1.5 pounds it's also the heaviest antenna here. You could try taping it to a window -- and to keep the tests fair we awkwardly did that -- but the antenna comes with mounting feet so you can place it vertically on an AV unit. Be aware you will need to pay extra for a cable to hook up the antenna if you don't already have one.

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Mohu Releaf

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Mohu ReLeaf

  • Cost: $40
  • Cable detachable? Yes
  • Number of channels: 65 (Manhattan), 45 (Long Island)

The Mohu ReLeaf is a retread of the original Leaf. The biggest difference is it's made from recycled materials. The press kit that accompanied the antenna even claimed the Mohu was made out of set-top boxes and even included bits of cable boxes as proof.

The ReLeaf comes with small mounting holes on the top, for thumb tacks presumably, but it lacks any kind of sticky applicators. It performed well in both locations -- not the best, but solidly enough to be a very dependable antenna in a variety of environments.

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RCA HDTV Indoor Antenna

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RCA Indoor HDTV antenna

  • Cost: $6.50
  • Cable detachable: No
  • Cable length: 5 feet
  • Number of channels: 68 (Manhattan), 21 (Long Island)

If you think of "indoor antenna" you invariably think of "bunny ears," and that's exactly what the pragmatically named RCA Indoor HDTV Antenna gives you. As it's a tabletop design we couldn't put the RCA on a window, and sat it in a window sill instead. It did well in the city but poorly in our mixed-reception suburban location. It's worth paying a couple of dollars extra for the Flatenna.

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RCA SLVR

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RCA SLVR

  • Cost: $45
  • Cable detachable: No
  • Cable length: 6 feet
  • Number of channels: 68 (Manhattan), 21 (Long Island)
  • Number of channels with amp: 51 (Manhattan), 37 (Long Island)

The SLVR is part "big gray box" and part amplifier. While it's attractively priced it's disappointing to see a short 6-foot captive lead on this model. It performed OK, but in our "poor" reception area it actually behaved worse with the onboard amp than the identically priced (and unamped) Mohu Leaf.

Which antenna should you get?

If you only have $10 then the answer is easy: the Channel Master Flatenna is a decent performer and easy to install. It will help determine whether an indoor antenna is right for you, and hey, costs almost nothing, so it's worth a shot.

If you want to "splurge" then we'd opt for the ClearStream Eclipse for $40. It's flexible and reversible and even comes with its own adhesive. The amp is available for $20 on its own, so you don't really save anything by buying the $59 bundle. If you find you're getting an unusually low number of channels with the base version you can always upgrade to the amp later.

We'll also give a nod to the Mohu ReLeaf, as we found it performed at its best when used in a less-than-optimal coverage area.

The least expensive (RCA Indoor HDTV Antenna) and the most expensive (Channel Master Smartenna) in this list were among the worst performers in one or both of our test environments, and they are not recommended as a result.