Monday, April 30, 2007


Buying an antenna for a high-definition television seems as out of place as using a rotary phone to make a call.

But some consumers are spending thousands of dollars on LCD or plasma TVs and hooking them up to $50 antennas that don’t look much different from what grandpa had on top of his black-and-white picture tube.

They are not doing it for the nostalgia.

Local TV channels, broadcast in HD over the air, offer superior picture quality over the often-compressed signals sent by cable and satellite TV companies.

And the best part? Over-the-air HD is free.

“Eighty-year-old technology is being redesigned and rejiggered to deliver the best picture quality,” said Richard Schneider, president of Antennas Direct. “It’s an interesting irony.”

A few years ago, Mr. Schneider started an assembly line in his garage and sold antennas out of the trunk of his car. Now his Eureka, Mo., company has seven employees and posted $1.4 million in sales last year. He expects revenue to double in 2007.

“People thought I was nuts. They were laughing at me when I told them I was starting an antenna company,” Mr. Schneider said.

Before cable and satellite existed, people relied on antennas to receive analog signals from local TV stations’ broadcasting towers. Stations still send out analog signals, but most now transmit HD digital signals as well. (Congress has ordered broadcasters to shut off old-style analog TV broadcasts by Feb. 17, 2009.)

Consumers who can get a digital signal from an antenna will get an excellent picture, said Steve Wilson, principal analyst for consumer electronics at ABI Research.

One major difference with a digital over-the-air signal is it doesn’t get snowy and fuzzy like the old analog signal. Instead, when the signal weakens, the picture will turn into tiny blocks and go black.

“You either get it or you don’t,” said Dale Cripps, founder and co-publisher of HDTV Magazine. “Some people can receive it with rabbit ears — it depends where you are.”

Mr. Schneider recommends indoor antennas only for customers within 25 miles of a station’s broadcast tower. An outdoor antenna will grab a signal from up to 70 miles away as long as no mountains are in the way, he said.

The Consumer Electronics Association has a Web site,, that tells how far an address is from towers and recommends what type of antenna to use.

“When you’re using an antenna to get an HD signal, you will be able to receive true broadcast-quality HD,” said Megan Pollock, spokeswoman for the group. “Some of the cable and satellite companies may choose to compress the HD signal.”

Compression involves removing some data from the digital signal. This is done so that the providers will have enough room to send hundreds of other channels through the same cable line or satellite transmission.

The difference in picture quality is a matter of opinion, said Robert Mercer, spokesman for satellite provider DirecTV Inc.

“We believe the DirecTV HD signal is superior to any source, whether it’s over the air or from your friendly neighborhood cable company,” Mr. Mercer said.

Others disagree.

Self-described TV fanatic Kevin Holtz of suburban Cleveland chose an antenna because he didn’t want to pay his satellite provider extra for local broadcast channels.

Mr. Holtz, 30, can’t get the signal from one local network affiliate or a public broadcasting station but said the rest of the stations come in clearer than they would through satellite. He uses a $60 antenna for a 40-inch Sony LCD, which retails for about $3,000.

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