Features December 1, 1998 Issue

Marine Electronics:
11-Model TV Antenna Test

The Shakespeare 2030 and Naval PR-411 are our top picks for all-around performance at the dock or at sea.

For boat owners who just can’t do without an onboard TV, there are two approaches for bringing in signals to a boat—direct satellite receivers or marine television antennas for receiving shore-based signals. Systems for receiving signals from geostationary satellites can cost thousands plus a monthly fee, while marine TV antennas range in cost from well under $100 to close to $600. In this report, we look at the latter category.

The 10 marine television antennas we tested are for the reception of shore-side VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-88.

Marine Antennas
Antennas intended for the marine market may have some aluminum parts, but they are usually protected in a lightweight plastic shell. Inside the plastic housing are special VHF and UHF elements positioned to capture as much signal from any horizontal direction as possible, and feed it to the coaxial cable that leads to your TV set below.

The marine television antenna may incorporate a high-gain, broad-band amplifier to boost incoming signal strength for snow-free reception. The amplifier must be selective in exactly what frequencies it will pick up, and must exhibit sharp notches on frequencies it will need to reject.

This is the essential dilemma of marine TV reception: What’s strong enough to bring in signals from a distance also tends to be flooded with spurious signals dockside.

Nuts & Bolts
There appears to be no standard omnidirectional TV antenna mount. Some require their own special bracket. Some mount on a 2" pole. Others take the more common 1" marine antenna thread to fit onto marine antenna mounts and extension poles. Mounting method may help you decide which model will work best aboard your boat.

We found big differences in the plastic housings that protect the inside antenna elements and the pre-amplifier. Many of the housings were sealed shut, and there was no way in to see what was on the inside, an indication of weatherproofness. If an antenna performed well, we didn’t break in to see why. But if one didn’t perform well, we pried open the plastic for a look at the circuitry.

All of the television antennas we tested with built-in pre-amplifiers feed 8 to 12 volts DC at about 30 milliamps into the coax with positive DC carried on the center conductor, and negative on the outside braid.

How We Tested
Once we assembled the antennas, we noted the DC current consumption of models with pre-amplifiers.

When we tested all antennas at a congested marina, most received VHF and UHF signals well enough, except for severe ghosting. Ghosting is caused by reflected signals coming in out of phase and with a slight signal delay from their non-direct path. Omnidirectional antennas will work much better away from the docks.

Then we took the antennas 20 miles offshore to judge reception from three different clusters of VHF and UHF transmitting television stations. We then cruised an additional 30 miles out and again judged reception of shoreside TV stations, some as distant as 100 miles.

We used two 12-volt DC televisions in our tests. One set used conventional rotary switch channel tuning with no automatic frequency control. This insured we were spot-on for every VHF and UHF channel without AFC pulling the TV receiver one direction or another if we were on an adjacent channel.

Alphanetics Techtenna
This $79, heavy-molded black box has a pair of adjustable rabbit ears and a side mount that attaches to a vertical stanchion. You adjust for best reception by maneuvering the telescopic rabbit ears. We were told that inside the black box was specialized circuitry to enhance the television signal. But we concluded there was no internal amplifier because no voltage was required to run the antenna system.

At the marina, reception was identical to a pair of everyday rabbit ears held in the same proximity. At sea, the 20-mile and 50-mile tests showed fair to poor performance. We constantly had to readjust the whips. We broke open the case to inspect the circuitry and found a simple 75-300-ohm impedance transformer—the same thing you can buy at Radio Shack for about a buck. Not surprisingly, the Techtenna has been taken off the market, though there may be some left

Bottom Line: Not recommended.

Omnidome
This white little antenna looks identical to a GPS receiver/antenna housing and came to us via a marine electronics tinkerer who said he was going into business producing these TV reception systems. The inside workings consisted of just a small metal loop; it fared very poorly in our testing, and it, too, has been taken off the market.

Bottom Line: Although you may find it discounted somewhere, we don’t recommend it.

Boatenna
This is a $75, 24" hoop made of anodized aluminum. Included is a 75-300-ohm adaptor that converts the twin-lead to the antenna port on your TV.

At the dock, TV reception on all channels was very good except for lots of ghosts on the lower channels. At 20 miles out, the unamplified hoop held onto the lower channels fairly well. Signals on the higher channels plus UHF were strong. At 50 miles, reception was good, but with snow indicating it was near its outer limits.

If you just cruise locally, the Boatenna should provide adequate TV reception, plus the FM music band, for relatively small cost.

Bottom Line: Not a top choice.

Shakespeare 2020-G
This is a lightweight, 14", pre-amplified marine antenna that sells for $99. The built-in amp contains multiple filters to minimize commercial radio interference on VHF and UHF channels, and offers 20.2 dB gain.

The relatively large power supply can run off 110 volts AC or 12 volts DC. You will need to purchase a small F-connector jumper to go between the power supply and your TV set.

Dockside reception was good, but, again, with lots of ghosts. Out 20 miles, all ghosting disappeared, and reception on all channels was excellent. But as we got to about 45 miles out, reception on the lower channels began to degrade. At 50 miles, Channels 2 and 3 were viewable, but not always in color. The higher channels came in relatively well.

The 2020 has a neat feature that cuts the power supply if you accidentally reverse the leads or have a plug short. An LED indicates things are working fine.

Bottom Line: One of the least expensive amplified antennas on the market, the 2020 offers only average performance, in our opinion. We’d recommend spending a little more for a better performer, such as the Shakespeare 2030.

Sea Sharp SSA-102
This $99 antenna comes with anodized aluminum hardware for mounting on a pole at home, but can be adapted for marine installations. The antenna is semi-omnidirectional with telescopic whips at each corner. Dockside, we could turn the antenna for improved signal with less ghosting.

At 20 miles, the Sea Sharp was relatively omnidirectional to most UHF and higher VHF channels, but somewhat directional (using the whips) to the lower TV channels.

At 20 miles, reception was not bad. Fifty miles out, the Sea Sharp did okay as long as it could be “aimed” at the distant stations. Nonetheless, it was picking up all of the distant stations with good color, even on the lower channels.

We measured the amplifier gain at less than 19 dB, but this was enough to see improvement in the picture as soon as we clicked on the amplifier.

We worry about the telescopic whips holding up, and the unit itself seems open to the weather. It was okay at busting ghosts dockside, but then so is a cheap pair of rabbit ears.

Bottom Line: We'd pass on this antenna.

Dantronics UFO-111
At 10", this is one of the smallest amplified marine antennas around. It sells for $127.

A red LED on the antenna indicates everything is okay. You must supply your own RG-59U 75-ohm cable. It comes with a little box that splits the two FM and TV F-connector terminals plus the terminal for the cable run up to the antenna. Make sure you don’t accidentally hook up the antenna cable directly to your TV.

At the dock, the UFO easily picked up all channels, and ghosting was minimal on the lower channels. At 20 miles, reception was superb on all UHF channels and most VHF channels, with Channels 2 and 3 beginning to pick up light snow. By the time we were 50 miles out, 2 and 3 were in and out of color, but still viewable. The higher VHF channels were also a little snowy, but quite viewable. UHF was very good.

We found that elevating the UFO an additional 10' dramatically improved lower-channel reception, but that’s true of all antennas.

Bottom Line: We recommend it for boats where space is tight.

Shakespeare 2030-G
This is a relatively large, but thin, 21", $128 antenna that comes with the built-in 20 dB pre-amp and an AC/DC switchable power supply.

In the marina, there was the usual ghosting—again, a clue the antenna should perform well at sea. At 20 miles, the Sea Watch marine TV antenna was absolutely omnidirectional with no noticeable fades. All channels, including 2 and 3, came in with full color and no sign of snow. At 50 miles, the lower channels showed signs of snow, but reception was still better than with any of the smaller antennas.

On the higher VHF channels, and all UHF channels, reception was excellent. Even with severe rolling and pitching, there were no signal fades. Bottom Line: We highly recommend the Shakespeare 2030. It will also work on FM, but it’s principally designed for television reception.

Dantronics Status
This new entry from Dantronics ($273) looks a bit like a big ABS plastic mushroom. The Status is shipped with a plastic amplifier control box that allows the amp to be switched on and off, as well as to adjust the 20 dB gain down to 5 dB.

The control box has two outputs to two televisions, or a TV and an FM receiver. This complicates installation, but the Dantronics comes with an excellent manual.

In the harbor, we could decrease ghosting by dropping the gain. At 20 miles, reception was excellent on all VHF and UHF channels, with only Channels 2 and 3 beginning to suffer slightly. The Status has a pinnacle, a 5" plastic spike containing a vertical polarization component that is designed to improve the picture when the boat is subjected to heavy rolls or pitching.

At 50 miles, reception was relatively good on Channels 2 and 3, but not quite as good as with larger diameter antennas. On VHF and UHF, reception was sparkling.

We liked the different mounting configurations possible.

We found the Status a good performer except when we were at the limits on Channels 2 and 3. But on the higher VHF channels, and all of the UHF channels, reception was good, while the adjustable gain improved dockside performance.

Bottom Line: We recommend the Status for owners who split their TV time between harbor and underway.

Naval Electronics PR-411
Naval Electronics’ Model PR-411, at $279, is a good example of a commercial-grade antenna. The upper shell is thicker than most other ABS plastic TV antennas, and it is tightly bonded to the ribbed bottom shell. All the inside metal elements plus low-noise amplifier are imbedded in solid polyurethane foam.

The amplifier gain was approximately 25 dB, one of the highest we recorded, which permits a smaller 17" antenna. Naval incorporates two amplifiers, one for VHF and one for UHF to minimize cross-modulation problems. We were impressed with all of the technical documentation that accompanied the PR-411.

The Naval power supply also doubles as the distribution point for the signal to twin jacks, one for television and radio 1, or TV or radio 2.

The antenna mounts to any vertical pole. There are several optional brackets.

In the marina, the Naval PR-411 had plenty of local signal—and ghosts. Out 20 miles, TV reception on all channels was excellent. At 50 miles, the Naval PR-411 continued to give us outstanding signals, with only a faint trace of snow on the lower channels.

Out 50 miles, all but the Naval antenna experienced blank-out when we transmitted on marine VHF radio at 25 watts. On the Naval, we couldn’t even tell we were transmitting.

This was also the only antenna that withstood the pounding of nearby transmitters in the downtown harbor. There was absolutely no sign of interference caused by strong paging transmitters located just 2 miles away.

Bottom Line: The Naval antenna is a top choice, albeit an expensive one.

Dantronics Mat 220
If your dockmaster won’t let you put up a directional aluminum home-style TV antenna on a piling, you may wish to consider two motorized models that have internal directional elements.

Priced around $550, the Dantronics Mat 220 has both omnidirectional and directional capabilities under its 17-1/2" dome. You can dial in the exact direction you want the antenna pointed, then adjust the gain for best reception. LED’s show you which way the antenna is rotating.

At sea, the omnidirectional capabilities were similar to the Shakespeare 2030 with good reception up to 50 miles on all channels, other than a little snow on Channels 2 and 3

Bottom Line: This is a rather expensive antenna system, but excellent for minimizing ghosts.

Shakespeare Sea Watch 2040
This $250, 21" antenna has a hand-controller that is hard-wired for left and right rotation. A control box signals when you have reached maximum rotation limits. The 2040 worked fine in the harbor with minimal ghosting. Performance was almost identical to the Dantronics Mat 220. On-the-water reception was great out to 50 miles. If we changed course, we simply re-tuned the antenna.

Bottom Line: Best buy of the directionals.

Conclusions
Size and amplification are the keys to performance with marine TV antennas. Any of the amplified small omnidirectional marine TV antennas will do a lot better than a simple pair of unamplified rabbit ears. But if you want across-the-channels performance, we recommend the Shakespeare 2030 or the Naval PR-411.

On boats with lots of vibration, one of Naval’s 10 models or a commercial Dantronics antenna are best.

The Dantronics Status, with adjustable amplitude, is also a good bet for those who do a lot of on-the-hook TV watching

If you plan to do most of your TV watching at the dock, and are willing to spend some bucks, the directional Shakespeare Sea Watch 2040 performs about at as well as the $570 Dantronics Mat 220, but at $250 is a much better buy.


Contacts- Boatenna, Box 371, Bay Head, NJ 08560; 732/899-7153. Shakespeare, Box 733, Newberry, SC 29108; 803/276-5504. Sea Sharp, 6965 El Camino Real, Carlsbad, CA 92009; 800/213-2211. Dantronics, Box 204, Boca Raton, FL 33429; 561/998-5888. Naval Electronics, 6717 Benjamin Rd., Tampa, FL 33634; 813/885-6091.

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