There's a lot of talk these days about cutting the cord. As video-on-demand providers add more TV content to their lineups, more people are wondering whether it's worth it to keep paying for cable/satellite service. One thing that prevents many of us from cutting said cord is the desire to see live events in real-time--be they sporting events, awards shows, news programs, etc. That's where free over-the-air service comes into play. Mating an HDTV antenna with the digital tuner in your TV will give you free access to local over-the-air channels like ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX. These channels may not give you access to every live event you want to see, but they do keep you connected to the "live" world and to the whole slate of daytime and primetime programming offered by the major networks (some of which might not be available through the VOD services).
I recently moved a TV into an upstairs bedroom that doesn't have a satellite hookup, so I decided to use this location as a "cut the cord" testing area. First, I connected my Apple TV; the recent addition of Hulu Plus to Apple TV makes that box all the more compelling for TV content. Right around that time, I got a press release from Mohu regarding its indoor HDTV antenna, the Leaf Ltd. It seemed serendipitous, so I requested a review sample.
Mohu sent me two antennas: the basic Leaf Ltd antenna ($49.99) and the Leaf Plus amplified antenna ($74.99), which is designed to add 10 to 15 decibels of gain across all channels. Both are omnidirectional indoor antennas that are especially well suited for pulling in UHF signals. For the non-amplified Leaf Ltd, Mohu recommends a maximum distance of 35 miles between your location and the TV towers; for the amplified Leaf Plus, the recommendation is 50 miles. The two models look almost identical: Each antenna consists of a flat, slightly flexible rectangle that measures 9 x 11.5 inches and is only 0.04 inches deep. The antenna is white on one side and black on the other, so you can show off the side that best blends with your wall color and/or TV style. At the bottom center of the rectangle is a thin, plastic triangular base unit with an RF cable that runs to your TV. The Leaf Plus embeds the amplifier into the base unit, and a power cord extends from the end of the RF cable. You can power the Leaf Plus via either a power outlet or your TV's USB port. USB power is a nice perk that keeps you from having to run another cord from your TV location to a power outlet, and it only turns on the antenna when the TV is in use. However, for those people who need to run the power cable to an outlet, Mohu has not given you much cable to work with: The power cable is only about 4 feet long, and the RF cable itself is only 6 feet long. By contrast, the Leaf Ltd antenna offers a much more convenient 16-foot RF cable, and the package includes both a tabletop stand and a pair of VELCRO wall stickers. (The Leaf Plus comes with the wall stickers but not the stand; Mohu also sells a basic Leaf antenna with a shorter 6-foot cord and no tabletop stand for $37.99.) The only other visible difference between the Leaf Ltd and Leaf Plus is the set of blue lights that glows from the Leaf Plus amplifier to show you that it's functioning.
As I mentioned, the Leaf antennas are best suited for UHF stations; they can also pull in VHF stations, but the antenna range may not be as high. To determine whether your local stations are UHF or VHF, you can go to AntennaWeb.org or the FCC DTV reception map and enter your address. Both sites provide a list of channels available in the area, the frequency type for each channel, and an estimation of signal strength. For this review, my focus was primarily on the antenna's performance with the six major channels: CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, PBS, the CW, and their substations. The better antennas will tune in other local channels like Telemundo and ION, but I'm not terribly interested in those. I live in the Front Range area of Colorado, about one hour north of Denver. According to AntennaWeb.org, the closet towers are about 32 miles away, which is part of the reason I've never had much success with indoor antennas. My local CW, CBS, FOX, and PBS channels are UHF; however, the ABC and NBC channels are VHF/Hi-V (channels 7 and 9, respectively), and they have proven in the past to be the two most difficult channels to reliably tune and hold.
I began with a test of the non-amplified Leaf Ltd antenna in the upstairs bedroom, connected to a Panasonic plasma TV. The Leaf antenna successfully tuned the six major channels on its first pass, and the UHF channels were generally stable from the get-go. The occasional bit of interference would cause some pixellation, but for the most part the signal remained strong. As I expected, reception was not as stable with the VHF channels. It took a lot of antenna repositioning on the wall, but eventually I did find that perfect spot wherein the Leaf was able to reliably hold all six channels with minimal interruption. That's fairly impressive considering my home's location is at the maximum edge of the Leaf's recommended UHF range. When I switched to the amplified Leaf Plus, I did not have to do as much placement adjustment to get a stable signal with all six channels.
Read more about the Mohu Leaf's antenna performance on Page 2.
Next, I tested the antennas' performance in my theater room, which is located just below the bedroom (ground level, not basement level). What a difference a level makes. The non-amplified Leaf Ltd was still able to tune and hold UHF channels with a fairly high degree of stability (although not 100 percent); however, moving down one level added enough obstacles and interference that the antenna struggled with the two VHF channels. The non-amplified Leaf was never able to reliably hold NBC and ABC at the same time, in the same place. As soon as I would lock on to one channel, I would lose the other. When I switched to the amplified Leaf Plus, the situation improved, but only after I added an RF extension cable to give me the freedom to experiment with antenna positions all around the room. After a great deal of trial and error, I found a spot where the amplified antenna was able to successfully deliver all six channels.
As I was moving the Leaf Plus around the room, I noticed that the amplifier lost power several times (all those pretty little blue lights in the base unit turned off). I determined that the problem was in the USB connector that links the power cord to the RF cable. The connection is not very secure, so a small movement of the cable can cause the amp to lose power. Admittedly, once you find the ideal spot for the antenna, you shouldn't have to move it; but, at one point, the antenna lost power when my dog walked by and brushed the cable. I requested a second review sample and experienced the same problem. If you lose power in the amp, you don't just lose some signal range; you lose the signal entirely. So, if you go the amplified rout
e, you may want to secure that power point to the wall to keep it from moving.
• The Leaf antenna is thin, light, easy to set up, and easy to blend into your décor.
• This omnidirectional indoor antenna doesn't need to be aimed toward the towers.
• The Leaf Ltd is designed to pick up UHF stations broadcast from up to 35 miles away, the Leaf Plus from 50 miles. Both models performed well tuning in UHF channels located 32 miles away, from both the upper and lower levels of my house.
• The Leaf Ltd's RF cable is a generous 16 feet long.
• The amplified Leaf Plus can be powered by your TV's USB port.
• The Leaf antennas can and did tune in my local VHF channels, but performance was a lot more placement-dependent and the signal a bit less reliable than it was with UHF signals.
• The Leaf Plus' RF and USB power cables are fairly short, which limits your flexibility to find the ideal placement.
• The Leaf Plus' USB power cable is not well-constructed, so the antenna lost power several times.
• The blue lights within the Leaf Plus base unit can be distracting in a dark room.
Competition and Comparison
We don't have other HDTV antenna reviews to which you can compare the Mohu Leaf, but you can check out other indoor antennas from companies like Antennas Direct, Terk, Channel Master, RCA and Winegard.
Reviewing an HDTV antenna can be tricky because its performance is so dependent on a person's individual circumstance: channel signal type and strength, distance to local towers, sources of interference in your home and surrounding environment, etc. The first thing any antenna shopper should do is go to AntennaWeb.org or the FCC DTV reception map and figure out the signal type, strength, and distance for the channels you want. If those signals are UHF and within 35 miles of your home, then the Leaf Ltd is definitely a contender as an easy, inexpensive over-the-air solution. In my case, the Leaf Ltd reliably delivered exactly what I needed: the six major over-the-air channels (including two VHF stations) in an upstairs room of my home. When I moved downstairs and needed a signal boost, the Leaf Plus also delivered; however, the combination of the power issues, the shorter cables, and the higher price tag make it more of a question mark. I recommend you start with the non-amplified Leaf Ltd and see if has the goods to help you cut the cord.