*As an Amazon Associate we may earn from qualifying purchases when you buy through links on our site.
Congratulations – you decided to get an HDTV antenna as part of your cord cutting endeavors. Your new antenna will pick up local channels that the major networks broadcast on.
These are the ones that may not be available on your streaming services but are free and over the air (OTA) for anyone with an antenna.
As you look at what’s available in the marketplace, you’ll see antennas picking up either one of these bands, or claiming to pick up both. But it may not be obvious which is right for you.
Should I Get a UHF or VHF Antenna?
Before 2009, in the days of analog TV, most stations were transmitting in VHF. Back then, transmitting in VHF had an advantage because it supported longer transmission distances and was better at cutting through interference.
Most of today’s digital broadcasts are on the UHF band. There are still a number of television stations using VHF, however, and between now and July 2020 a few more UHF stations will move to VHF.
That’s because of something called the FCC channel repack, which is taking away some channels on the UHF band and assigning their frequencies to 5G cell phone service.
In any case, there’s a good chance you’re aware that the VHF channels are 2-13 and the UHF channels are 14-51 (14-36 after the repack).
So you might think all you need to do is find out local channels and get the antenna for the corresponding band.
As it turns out, that’s not quite the case. The channel number the station calls itself by, the one in the TV guide, isn’t necessarily the channel the station is broadcasting on.
The guide shows you what’s called the virtual channel. The signal might emit from the broadcast tower on a different frequency, which is the real channel.
The signals contain digital information to tell the set what virtual channel should be used.
That may seem odd, but it’s understandable that the local station that’s been known for decades as, for example, Channel 4, would want to keep calling itself Channel 4 even though it’s moved to broadcasting on a UHF channel.
So the broadcaster you know as Channel 4 might have a real channel of, for example, 22 or 35 (making that channel 22-4, or 35-4).
To understand what antenna you need, you have to know your local stations’ real channels. How do you find out what they are?
There are a number of websites, including this FCC site, that give the real channels of the stations in your area. This site also tells you if any of your real channels are changing as part of the FCC repack.
Can One Antenna Give Me Both Frequency Bands?
The quick answer is “yes, but…”
It’s difficult to design an antenna that’s compact and does a good job on both bands. Their wavelengths are different, and the size and shape of an antenna has to be suitable for the wave it attempts to bring in.
A lot of antennas will claim to do both, but most are optimized for one or the other. Just about any antenna will sometimes pick up broadcast television signals it’s not designed for.
To understand why the same antenna can’t be ideal for both, it helps to understand something about the radio waves (I know, we’re talking about TV yet these are referred to as radio frequency signals!) that you’re trying to capture.
Very high frequency (VHF) signals are transmitted from 54 to 216 megahertz (MHz), while ultra high frequency (UHF), as the name implies, comes through much higher, 470 to 806 MHz.
A higher frequency in MHz means just what it sounds like, that the waves are more frequent. Their peaks and troughs propagate more closely together. Such waves are shorter than lower frequency, longer wavelengths.
The lowest frequency in low-band VHF, i.e., Channel 2, has a wavelength of about 18 feet. Signals toward the upper end of UHF aren’t much longer than one foot.
The antenna that most efficiently picks up a given wavelength will have a dipole whose length is some fixed proportion to the length of the wave. For example, half the length of the wave.
So a larger antenna will be needed to pick up both one-foot and 18-foot waves. In other words, it would need to adequately cover both the low end of VHF frequencies and the high end of UHF.
What’s the Difference between UHF and VHF Antenna? Can I Tell by Looking?
The most iconic indoor antenna, the rabbit ears, has a V-shape and is built for VHF frequencies (high-band VHF). The sides of the V are extendable, which gives you some level of adjustment specific to the station you’re pulling in.
Many rabbit ear sets include a loop in addition to the old familiar V, making it a UHF and VHF antenna antenna.
Most modern indoor antennas, such as the flat panel from 1byone below, have looped dipoles inside the plastic casing for getting the UHF band.
Some manufactures claim these panel antennas get VHF and UHF, but in reality such antennas very likely won’t get low VHF channels. Remember, Channel 2’s wavelength is around 18 feet.
A UHF antenna for indoors works well, however, in urban areas where TV stations are nearby.
With most outdoor antennas, all the dipoles are visible, and it’s obvious whether an antenna gets only one frequency band, or a combination of both.
Outdoor antennas consist of elements attached to a boom, and they’re built to capture different wavelengths with several dipoles. These elements combine together to optimize antenna gain.
The waves they’re designed to capture also determine the number of elements, as well as their length, diameter and spacing.
Because UHF signals don’t travel distances as well, they generally need more elements. They’re picking up shorter waves.
These small dipoles are usually just a few inches long and are arranged in parallel rows at the front of the antenna. The dipoles themselves are also perpendicular to the boom, as shown in the picture of this pingbingding outdoor antenna below:
VHF antennas tend to have have longer elements and fewer of them. (See that one long, horizontal bar at the back of the antenna pictured above? That’s the VHF dipole.)
Because of today’s preponderance of UHF stations, there aren’t many different types of VHF-only antennas.
Most antennas these days have some combination of long dipoles, as well as short dipoles or loops. Combined together, these are designed to capture both VHF and UHF.
But a lot of manufacturers will exaggerate how well their antennas do with the lowest MHz frequencies of VHF.
By the way, if you’re looking for a UHF antenna that gets strong VHF, I recommend you check out the Winegard HD7694P.
UHF vs. VHF: Which Is better?
In the analog days, VHF had an edge because it could travel farther with the same power. Since 2009 most stations have gone to UHF if they were able to, because the higher frequencies are better for digital compression and error checking of the sorts of high-def shows you get today.
UHF antennas also tend to be smaller and easier to install, and the signals do well in densely packed urban areas.
However, one or more of your local stations may be broadcasting on VHF. In any case, you’ll be more than happy with the picture if the signal is strong enough and you have the antenna that’ll bring it in.