Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Antennas Direct DB4e gets a Boost From the Clearstream VHF Dipole Kit

Use the Clearstream Dipole Kit to Make This Great UHF Antenna fit your VHF Needs


With the shrinking of the broadcast TV spectrum in the great DTV transition of 2009 (US) and 2011 (Canada) a few years back, the door was opened for antenna manufacturers to optimize and design antennas for the new range of DTV channels. Antennas Direct was perhaps the most proliferate as it produced its Clearstream antenna line to much success ... and then pushed the envelope further with its newest DBe line, again proving that compact antennas can pack good performance.
The Antennas Direct DB4e, the newest and most powerful compact UHF antenna on the market (Photo courtesy of Antennas Direct)
To the dismay of some Canadian consumers,  the DBe line was exclusively designed for UHF reception only (channels 14 and up), putting people living in areas with stations still broadcasting on VHF-Hi (channels 7 to 13) on the sidelines. These people would either have to purchase a separate antenna for the VHF channels or forego the DB4e altogether and its awesome UHF reception power in favour a different brand VHF + UHF antenna.

Well, the good news is that this predicament is no longer the case thanks to the creation of the Clearstream VHF kit, a set of antenna dipoles and signal combining hardware that can be used to add VHF-Hi reception on any Clearstream or DBe series antenna.



The C2V Reflector Kit (top) adds VHF-Hi capability to a Clearstream 2 antenna (above). With some mods, the kit can fit a DB4e. (Photos courtesy of Antennas Direct)

The kit itself comes designed for the Clearstream 2, as it is meant to be form-fit-function replacement of the reflector.  However, with a new set of instructions from Antennas Direct and some basic handyman skills that kit can be modified and adapted to work on the DBe line.

With some handiwork the C2V kit fits on the DB4e. (Photo courtesy of @MontrealOTA on Twitter)

Your very own Average Joe got his hands on the DB4e and the Clearstream kit and decided to test out if this simple kit is enough to redeem the DB4e in VHF zones.

Model: Antennas Direct DB4e + Clearstream VHF Dipole Kit
Size:  37” high x 8” deep x 21” wide (becomes 38” wide with addition of VHF dipole)

DB4e package includes: DB4e antenna, mounting hardware for pole mount, instructions
C2V VHF Dipole package includes: Dipole reflector kit, UHF/VHF combiner, necessary coax cables to combine dipole to DB4e, instructions

Output: One F-type connector (cable coax) on the antenna for RG-59 or RG-6 cable

Pros: Great reception range in fairly compact design, strong UHF performance, dipole kit adds good VHF-Hi performance, wide reception angle, good quality connectors and signal combiner
Cons: The antenna doesn’t exactly blend in with its surroundings, cost becomes quite substantial when you add on the dipole kit


Build Quality
Overall, the antenna and dipole kit both have good build quality. We liked that the antenna elements are well put together and the connectors are high quality and protected from the elements. The DB4e mounting clamp is strong and sturdy and the plastic trim pieces are of decent quality. We did notice that some of the metal pieces were a little low end in terms of fabrication tolerances with some holes appearing to be drilled off-centre and some of the reflectors were misaligned (bent). It was nothing major as we simply bent items back to where they should be to get everything nice and lined up. The dipole kit itself is very robust; once deployed from its folded position the clamps hold the dipoles securely with no risk of them collapsing under use.

Nice attention to detail: Weather protection is provided on all the cables in the kit and the balun and signal joining components are of high quality. Well done, Antennas Direct.


Assembling the antenna
The DB4e comes almost fully assembled with just the forward antenna element assembly needing to be mounted to the reflector assembly with two spacers. In all, it was an easy setup and took no more than five minutes.

Preparing the dipole kit was a bit more involved as the reflector assembly had to be removed and then hardware had to be swapped in order to install the dipoles on the antenna. As the included instructions were only for mounting on a Clearstream 2, I contacted my local Antennas Direct retailer who then emailed me a PDF of special modification instructions. In the end it took a total of 20 minutes to create what I call the “DB4eV”.

 
Overall, the assembled antenna and VHF dipole is very robust yet still lightweight.

Installation

Installing the antenna was simple. Although on the larger end of the compact antenna category, it is still very lightweight and was easy for one person to carry up the ladder and manipulate. The clamp fits on a large variety of tower poles and can even be installed on J-mounts. While some people have used the DB4e with satellite J-mounts, we suggest going with longer 39” J-mounts over the conventional ones meant for satellite dishes due to the size of the antenna.

We aired out the DB4eV for testing line-of-sight to our transmitters.

Aiming the antenna is easy as the beam angle is so wide that as long as the front is facing the approximate direction of the broadcast towers you’re bound to get a great signal. We love the fact that the DB4e has wing nuts for the mast clamp as it makes it easy to adjust and aim using just your fingertips, then once you have it pointed in the right place you can tighten it with pliers.
 
Performance

We tested the DB4e is Montreal for one main reason: this area has a distant Fox station from Burlington that is difficult to catch on RF 43. The DB4e has some of its peak performance in that area so we wanted to see if the DB4e had enough gain to bring in this signal. Until now, we would never even think of recommending this antenna as-is due to the 3 VHF-Hi stations in the Montreal area. With the addition of the diploe kit, here is how the “DB4eV” stacked up. We also included results of a previous brand-name antenna already installed at that same testing location.

The test was conducted by mounting the DB4eV outside and taking five readings at 3-hour intervals during the same day by comparing the UHF and combined outputs of the DB4e. The baseline reading was only taken once as a reference. All signals went through a pre-installed pre-amp of an approximate gain of 12dB and all stations were line-of-sight.

Station (RF)
Distance (mi)
Baseline antenna
DB4e
DB4e + VHF dipole
TVA 10 (10)
12
93%
No signal
93%
CTV 12 (12)
12
91%
No signal
90%
ABC 22 (13)
81
74%
No signal
76%
FOX 44 (43)
81
60%, unstable
88%
88%

We saw the reception on RF 43 increase as we had hoped to lock in the distant Fox station. What we were surprised to see was that this simple dipole kit also brought in another distant ABC VHF-Hi station from the same area with a fairly strong signal! While we had predicted the two local VHFs to come in easily, seeing this was a pleasant surprise.

Appearance

While not one of the prettiest antennas out there, it’s definitely not one of the worst we’ve seen. Its ample grills, bright red tips and exposed wiring gets even more bizarre looking once the diploe kit is added on making it a far cry from the sexy Clearstream line we’re used to from Antenna Direct. OK, so is it that bad? No, but don’t expect to use it as the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving dinner.
The antenna will stand out like a glorified BBQ grill when mounted on your house, but the good news is this very compact antenna has enough punch to replace any big rusty behemoth you may already have on the roof. It is also compact enough be tucked away off a chimney or modestly mounted off the eaves in a corner of your house to be somewhat discrete. For apartment dwellers or condo owners, it can also fit hanging off a balcony assuming your building regulation allows it.

Overall, it isn’t that bad looking considering the high quality reception it will give you.

Prices and Where to Buy
In general, the price of the DB4e ranges from $80 to $120 which is a very large range so be sure to shop around.  Unfortunately it is not carried in major retail chain stores, but the good news is there are several online retailers in Canada that sell this item so shipping is reasonable.

The official Canadian distributer for Antennas Direct is online OTA mega-retailer Save And Replay which sells both the DB4e and the VHF Dipole Kit. The dipole kit is a bit hard to find but there are other online sources and some local speciality store will carry it as well. The DB4e is more available and is even carried online by some discount electronics retailers. Earlier this year, Best Buy Canada also had a sale on the DB4e as limited stock item online but does not appear to stock it regularly.

Conclusion
In the end, the VHF kit is enough to redeem the DB4e as a viable open in areas with VHF and UHF signals. We were surprised to see the dipole pick up a US VHF-Hi station more than the rated 60+ miles away in our test.

The good news is Antennas Direct has realized the popularity of this kit and will soon introduce a more universal dipole kit that will be more plug-and-play with the DBe series and not require disassembly of the reflector.
If you’re OK with installing a larger “flat” antenna and need some high-powered hardware, be sure to check out the DB4e with the dipole add-on.

Overall Rating: 9/10


More info on the DB4e and the C2V dipole kit can be found on Antenna Direct's website:
http://www.antennasdirect.com/store/DB4e-extended-long-range-outdoor-dtv-antenna.html
http://www.antennasdirect.com/store/ClearStream2-VHF-Reflector-Assembly.html

Monday, October 21, 2013

Winegard FlatWave AIR


Catch the Wave, get some AIR
Thanks to Winegard, the list of excuses to not give TV by antenna a try just got a lot shorter. Most people still have the idea that antennas are big, ugly and require constant readjustment to bring in channels. Enter the new Winegard FlatWave AIR – an antenna that’s smaller than a satellite dish yet as powerful as antennas almost several times its size.
The new FlatWave AIR outdoor antenna from Winegard (Photo courtesy from www.Winegard.com)

In what appears to be the evolution/crossbreeding of Winegard’s outdoor Squareshooter series and newest indoor FlatWave, the AIR is a serious contender in the burgeoning market of uber-compact digital TV antennas.

Your one and only Average Joe and his team has been testing it for several weeks now and here’s a summary of what I’ve found. Let’s begin:

Model: Winegard FlatWave AIR
Size: 14”W x 14”H (24” if you include the mounting J-bracket) x 5” thick
Package includes: FlatWave Air antenna, proprietary J-mount bracket, in-line power supply, USB plug adapter, antenna-to-bracket hardware, instructions

Output: One F-type connector (cable coax) on the antenna for RG-59 or RG-6 cable, in-line amp runs off a USB connector

Pros: The most powerful amplified antenna we’ve seen to date in terms of line-of-sign reception range, compact form factor, wide reception angle, industry-leading 1dB low-noise amplifier, versatile USB power input, can drive up to 4 TVs without need for a downstream distribution amplifier, discrete appearance blends in to any home application
Cons: Price may be above some people’s price range

FlatWave AIR Build Quality
Even before you start setting up the FlatWave AIR, you immediately get a sense of the experience Winegard has in putting a quality product on the market. The large items are packed well, smaller components are well-wrapped and the instructions are clear and detailed (below).


The plastic casing of the AIR is solid and a good thickness. The overall finish is high quality unlike some plastic pieces we’ve seen on other clone (politely called “generic”) antennas. In light of this, I don’t anticipate the casing of this antenna to fade or crack over time.  
High-quality finished plastic is used on the FlatWave AIR

The design is also rugged: for example the mounting area is reinforced and uses metal mounting inserts for the J-pole clamp (below). 

The J-pole and its mounting bracket are of good strength and appear to have some sort of powder coating to avoid surface damage from installation or exposure to the elements. Both the case of the antenna and mounting bracket never scratched or scuffed in the weeks we subjected it to wear and tear including installing and re-installating. All pieces fit well together.

Overall excellent build quality, indicative of the “Made in USA” proudly displayed on the unit.

We took a peek inside and the design seems simple and clean, essentially it consists of Winegard’s proprietary FlatWave pattern with a reflector grid. The reflectors are held in place with a plastic retainer so when moving the antenna they will jiggle a bit, so a hearing a metallic “windchime” sound is normal when moving the antenna around. 
FlatWave AIR: here's what is under the hood, folks. The top half is only reflectors.


FlatWaveAIR Installation

The installation instructions were simple and effective and the antenna was a cinch to mount to its j-pole. It is easy to configure to any type of mounting be it vertical (wall), horizontal (flat) or sloped (roof).  A few tips we’d like to point out:

·       The AIR will not fit on standard satellite dish J-poles. The J-pole provided has a tube of smaller diameter so if your plan is to replace an existing dish with this antenna you cannot use the existing dish mount.

Satellite J-poles (1.75” in dia, left) are larger than the AIR’s mount (1.25” in dia, right).

·       Unlike satellite dish mounts, the mount / J-pole does not swivel: instead of a long slot allowing you to adjust elevation, there are a series of levelling holes. If you are used to installing satellite dish mounts and are planning on installing on a sloped roof we recommend you follow the instructions and do not pre-install the levelling bolt until you have adjusted the final elevation of the pole on site (easily aligned with a vertical level). It’s not ideal to remove the bolt in tight quarters or if you lose visibility to the other side of the mount.
The AIR J-pole uses leveling holes, not a continuous slot so please keep in mind the bolt needs to be completely removed when adjusting elevation.

·       Despite the installation procedure we found it was easier to install the coax cable before mounting the antenna to the J-pole as access is easier.

Assembling the antenna was easy as it’s essentially a three-step process without any way to really misassemble. The whole assembly once all tightened up is very rigid and super lightweight. It can easily be handled by one person.

Assembling the antenna is a snap and the result is sturdy and easy to adjust/aim.

Aiming the antenna was also a breeze as it sites very well on the J-pole mount and swivels easily. Minute adjustments in azimuths were possible, even with one hand.

The only drawback we could see is that as this antenna was designed to be mounted using the J-pole; people looking to install this antenna on an existing antenna mast greater than 1.25” in diameter may need to rig up something a bit more complex to attach it to their existing tower or pole.


FlatWaveAIR Performance
What else can I say but “WOW”? I had read up on some of the reviews online beforehand so I expected good reception of our local stations, all within an about 30km radius.
In suburban testing, what surprised me was the reception of even our far-away stations that are about 120km (80miles) away! All I had to do was mount the antenna high enough where I was guaranteed line-of-site to the transmitters using TVFool.com, aim the front of the antenna dead on and it brought in all those channels with a stable strength. The beam width was wide enough that my local channels which were off about almost 70 degrees came in from the sides. This was very impressive for an antenna of such a compact size. The built-in amplifier did its job and the published claim of a 60-mile range was definitely upheld.

In a more urban application, the antenna responded well to multipath and being mounted lower down before direct line-of-sight with the transmitters. Even when only mounted about two stories up, it brought in all the locals and the faraway stations (but with reduced strength on the latter as it was probably catching the signal bouncing off some of the taller builders in the vicinity). Overall, still very good performance and the built-in amplifier did not overload by being in close proximity to the local transmitters.
The AIR undergoes our testing using a temporary balcony mount about 2 floors up. Between its reception range and amplification power, this antenna delivers the goods people.
As for the claim in powering up to 4 TVs, there is definitely enough signal strength in there to make the use of a distribution/drop-amplifier unnecessary for most residential applications. There was no signal degradation when used with about 60 feet of RG-6 cable and standard low-loss passive splitters during our tests.


The antenna was not tested indoors as it is designed for outdoor use and its sister antenna, the Winegard FlatWave Amped, fills this need in the product line.


Appearance
The look of the AIR is clean, compact and well – black. There are no company logos or bright red or yellow trim to attract attention and when installed looks so compact and discrete that it blends right in to any d├ęcor. This would help to make it an ideal choice in areas where housing regulations forbid installations of antennas (most probably written with hulking 6-foot long antennas in mind).

Considering it is smaller than a satellite dish (see below) and looks more like a WiFi extender than a TV antenna, you have a good chance or your Condo board in giving you the green light to mount it outside. As always, please check with your landlord or any local municipal codes on restrictions/permits that may apply before mounting your antenna.

We've never seen such performance in such a compact and discrete antenna. (Photo courtesy of @MontrealOTA via Twitter) 


Prices and Where to Buy
Coming in at about $130 this antenna may put some people off. However when comparing to other antennas on the market, that fact that it is all-in-the-box solution and offers such high quality results makes this price range somewhat justified.

When doing research, I found that most other antennas from reputable manufacturers that provided this range of VHF-Hi and UHF performance would cost about $80-90. This does not include the mounting hardware (the AIR does) nor a pre-amplifier / distribution amplifier to maximize the signal and run multiple TVs (the AIR has it built-in). So overall when comparing to complete setup, you are essentially in the same price range.
Apparently there are promos from time-to-time so be sure to check in often on Winegard’s website. It can be purchased from Winegard directly from their store if you are willing to pay for shipping to Canada. The Source carries FlatWave products in Canada so I imagine the product will be available soon them as well (still awaiting confirmation at the moment this is being published)


Conclusion

In summary, Winegard has hit it over the fence with the FlatWave AIR. I would strongly urge anyone who is concerned about the appearance of an antenna on their roof / balcony but doesn’t want to lose any performance to seriously look at it as an option. It meets its published specs and delivers on the money while pushing the envelope for compact antennas.

Overall rating: 9.5/10


More info on the FlatWave AIR can be found here courtesy of Winegard’s website: http://www.winegard.com/get-free-tv/hdtv-antenna/flatwave-air/

UPDATE MARCH 2014: The FlatWave AIR is now available for sale in Canada via The Source. Although listed at $199, sale prices can go as low as $160