Who wouldn’t want to get HD TV content for free? That’s the promise of three HD antennas from Antennas Direct, the ClearStream C1, ClearStream C4 and ClearStream Amplified Indoor Digital TV antenna. Hook one of these up to your TV and you can cut the cord, getting uncompressed high definition TV channels without paying cable or satellite fees. Here’s how I made out on my quest for free (and legal) HD television.
I was asked to test a trio of HD antennas from Antennas Direct and I accepted the assignment, although with a few reservations.
On paper, I would make the ideal test subject. I ditched cable a decade ago when my (then toddler) kids started singing commercial jingles as though they were songs. From that point on, we were disc only, at least until I picked up my first Apple TV streamer in 2007. That setup has served us well, but every now and then I get the urge to watch the local news or even better, a football game. The kind of stuff Apple TV doesn’t do. An HD antenna could make for a perfect solution, delivering some over-the-air live content to supplement my streaming, without re-activating that cable account.
But … I live in London, Ontario. Nice city, but it’s in a veritable broadcasting dead zone. We’re 200 km from Toronto, 200 km from Detroit and Cleveland is 170 km across Lake Erie. On top of that, I have a metal roof, which is pretty much Kryptonite to antennas.
Regardless of the challenges, I spent a week assembling antennas, running coax cable, adjusting antenna locations (indoors and out), checking the results and yes, watching a little TV in the process.
For each antenna, I followed the general instructions provided by Antennas Direct. They sum it up in this handy infographic.
When used indoors, position the antennas near a window, preferably one facing the desired broadcast towers (attic installation was also a suggested method, but our metal roof killed that option). When used outdoors, mount them high, and facing the towers. I did the outdoor testing in clear, sunny weather—not so much to eliminate storm interference as to avoid getting wet or hit by lightning …
To find what signals are in your area and the direction you should be aiming the antenna, Antenna’s Direct recommends using the Antennapoint website.
That’s when the challenge of my situation became starkly obvious.
Yeah, the website shows zero transmitters within 60 miles (97 km). I know that can’t be entirely right, because London has one local TV station (CFPL) and I can see its broadcast tower just a few kilometres from my house, but it served to re-enforce the notion that my situation was rather grim.
I tried TV Fool next, another antenna positioning web service. This one showed another tower 6 km away, broadcasting four channels and helpfully included the signal strength and exact direction to ensure correct aiming of the antennas.
I tested each antenna in multiple locations (set up in two rooms in the house, each with a window facing a far-off tower) and the ClearStream C1 and C4 were also set up in multiple locations outdoors. Each time an antenna was re-positioned, I scanned the channels to make sure anything new was picked up. I also learned (the hard way), that these are digital antennas; without an adapter, they can’t be used with an old HDTV that has analog input. So my vintage Sharp HDTV (the 26-inch, 720p beast I paid something like $1,500 for in the very early days of flat screens) couldn’t be used as a “mobile” test unit.
ClearStream Amplified Indoor Digital TV Antenna
Assembling this antenna was a piece of cake that basically involved slotting two square-ish components into the slots on an upright stand, plugging it in to a power adapter, then connecting it to the TV.
It’s an indoor-only unit with a range of 56+ kilometres and can be used with or without the signal amplification. I tried both methods. Given my geographic location, the metal roof and the fact that only the TV in the basement had a window facing the tower with the four channels, that pretty much doomed the ClearStream Amplified Indoor Digital TV antenna to only being able to pick up London’s local TV station, CFPL.
That small black square on top of the shelving unit is the ClearStream antenna. It’s facing a window, out of which you can physically see the local broadcast tower.
That’s one more channel than I had before and I could now watch the news, but not an amazing outcome. That being said, Best Buy customers give this one four stars, with reports of much better results in and around Toronto (15 channels from a Toronto Condo, 11 channels from a town near Newmarket).
This antenna looks a little more like what I was picturing—a receiver with a mesh reflector. It can be assembled in three configurations: tabletop. wall-mount or outdoor mount. I went with the first and the last and assembly was once again quite easy. It took about five minutes and required only a screwdriver.
The ClearStream C1 has the same 56+ km range as the indoor antenna, but this time, the results were more impressive: five channels! Even from an indoor location, and even when in the basement.
Unfortunately, the additional channels weren’t ones that were particularly compelling (two were multicultural broadcasts and one was exclusively religious programming), but still. In each the picture was stable, and in glorious HD.
I checked the user comments on Best Buy and one buyer from Toronto is receiving 31 channels with this antenna! That’s better than some basic cable packages …
This was the big guns when it comes to antennas. In appearance, it’s basically a pair of C1s (with an added loop in the receiver) joined by metal bars. It looks like something you’d find in a military installation and was a little more complicated to assemble (this one took me about 10 minutes). At 20 x 28-inches (51 x 71-cm) it’s a little large for indoor use—unless you opt for the attic installation—but I rigged it for my two room test and came back with the same five channels as the C1.
But the ClearStream C4 practically screams for outdoor installation and it has a claimed range of 105+ km. So I spent a lot of time with this one in various outdoor installations. I didn’t have a secure roof mount option, but I did get it eight feet in the air (facing various directions as suggested by TV Fool) on our back yard pergola. I then moved it out to the front yard, dragging a 32-inch TV outside for testing since I had no way to run coax cable into the house from that location.
Ideally, it would be pole mounted but I positioned the ClearStream C4 in various spots on a handy 10-foot tall pergola to get at least some height.
It was a lot of effort, but I managed to pick up one additional station (for a total of six) and this one was a keeper with some programming I’d actually watch.
Again, if you’re in or near a major metropolitan area, you’re going to fare much better than I did with the ClearStream C4. I’m seeing in the Best Buy comments that an owner in Scarborough has topped 40 channels using this antenna.
Here’s a qiuick recap of how the three antennas fared.
|ClearStream Amplified Indoor Digital TV Antenna||ClearStream C1 indoor/Outdoor Digital TV Antenna||
ClearStream C4 indoor/Outdoor Digital TV Antenna
Maximum Channels Received
With the indoor setups, I consistently received the same channels and the worst interruption I had (using the ClearStream C1) was a few moments of digital scrambling that quickly resolved itself. I’m not sure what caused the issue as the weather was clear, but the reception was almost always excellent. I didn’t test how the outdoor configurations fared in poor weather, partially because we never got anything worse than light rain during my review period and also because I had to physically have a TV set out there for some of the positioning.
Is an HD antenna worth the investment? For most households, the answer is likely “yes.” Even the costliest version I tested doesn’t run much more than a few months of cable and after the initial purchase, you’re watching TV for free. Based on the comments from buyers of these antennas, those within range of large urban broadcast towers are seeing impressive results, sometimes as many as 40 channels. In my case, the results weren’t spectacular, but if I’d mounted one of the outdoor antennas like the ClearStream C4 on my roof, I suspect I could have added a few more to the results. And even without trying very hard—the ClearStream C1 set up near my television in the basement—I still had at least a few decent HD TV channels to watch, which is a big improvement over the zero I have without an antenna.