Can a small antenna really get signals 60 miles away?

It seems too good to be true. Some of the antennas we advertise on Solid Signal like this Antop UFO say they can pull in signals 40, 50, or even 60 miles away. Conventional wisdom says you need a much larger antenna to pull in distant signals. Can these antennas be for real?

OK, here’s the straight dope.

I like to tell people that once they get past 35 miles or so, any antenna could have problems. It may look like you have a clear view, but you can’t tell if there’s a hill 35 miles away that’s causing a problem, or a power plant distorting the magnetic fields, or any of the dozens of things that can cause problems with an antenna signal.

Smaller antennas like this one use more modern technology including highly sensitive amplifiers, but when it comes to antennas there’s no real substitute for cubic inches, as they say. A bigger antenna will almost always beat a smaller antenna. That is, if everything else is equal.

This is the largest TV antenna made for consumer use, the massive HD8200XL. It should outperform any other antenna out there, and in most cases it does. Except… a lot of that girth might be wasted on you. The largest part of the antenna is used to pick up channels 2-6, which aren’t used in most markets. The next largest part is used for channels 7-13. Most areas have only one channel in this range; some have none. The rest of the channels are in the UHF band, and only the lower left portion of that antenna is used for UHF. You could take away everything past the diagonal “reflectors” near the lower left and it would still work as well for most people.

So, it’s not always about size. It’s about smarts, too. You can pick up a reasonable sized antenna and get all the same UHF channels you get with a much larger one. That’s one secret.

Another secret is amplification. Amplification is a kind of weird thing when it comes to over-the-air antennas. It won’t help you at all if you have a good signal, but it sometimes helps you with those really distant marginal signals, especially if you have a very decent low-noise amp. Sometimes when you’re trying to get those marginal signals an amplifier’s just the thing.

The right antenna can really make a difference. An antenna like our HDB91X is great for distant signals because it focuses in on a very narrow part of the sky. If you’re 60 miles from the towers, then all the towers are going to seem very close together from your perspective. An antenna that picks up its strongest signals from a fairly narrow area might be better for you than one that tries to pick up signals from a lot of different directions. This sort of antenna is called a “deep fringe” antenna and we have many different ones at Solid Signal.

In the end, while it’s true that “size matters,” the brains of the antenna, the way it’s designed, and the kind of antenna it is actually matter more. Sometimes a small antenna will take you by surprise!