The Channel Master CM-2018 antenna. ($65 at Amazon.)

An over-the-air antenna is a great way to round out a cord-cutter's setup. Free TV, beamed over the air (duh), and right into your home. Local channels for as far as the eye can see. (Almost literally.)

A question we get all the time, though, is whether you need to have an amplified on your antenna. And the answer is yes. Or no. Or maybe. Or it depends.

Signal amplifiers are quick and easy to use, and they're not all that expensive. For about $30 on Amazon, you can get an amplifier that not only boosts the incoming signal, it also allows you to split it up and run it to multiple televisions.

The question, then, is whether you actually need an amplifier.

There's no real art to this. It's science. First, you need to consider what it is an amplifier does. As the name tells you, an amplifier amplifies a signal, making it stronger. How much stronger depends on the strength of the signal in the first place — how far away you are from the broadcast tower, and how well your antenna picks up the signal. And radio signals, of course, can be measured.

Cheap signal meters are a dime a dozen on Amazon. (OK, they're a little more than that.) But the truth is you don't even have to bother with that if you don't want to. If you want to do things on the cheap, all you have to do is this:

  1. Buy an amplifier and plug it in.
  2. Tune to all your usual channels.
  3. Do you get more channels than you had before? Great!
  4. Did you lose any channels that you had before Not great! Unplug the amplifier!

The Channel Master CM3414 amplifier. ($33 at Amazon.)

The thing about over-the-air TV these days is that the signals are all digital. You either get them or you don't. What you can anecdotally measure is how quickly they drop off. So that'll be pretty obvious. My local Fox station is always my one "trouble" station. If I can receive it, I know my setup is good.

But pay attention to Point 4 above. It's also absolutely possible to over-amplify a signal. So if you have a channel that suddenly struggles after you installed an amplifier, that could be the problem. Unplug it and see what happens.

There's another way to measure things that doesn't involve buying signal meters. If you're using an OTA streaming box like the ones from HDHomerun and Tablo, you can get basic signal metering from them, too. When you scan for channels, Tablo shows you a cell phone-like series of dots for signal strength. And there are apps that tie into HDHomerun that let you see exactly what it's seeing, which is fun. (Get one here for Android, and one here for iOS. Apps like those also can help you make sure your antenna is facing the proper direction, too.

So, no. You don't need an electrical engineering degree or even need to have basic knowledge of math to figure out whether you need an amplifier on your antenna. It can be a simple as trying one out and seeing how it works. But a little research (and a decent signal meter) can help you understand the results a little more.

The best over-the-air antennas

Who doesn't like free TV, right? And it turns out that in 2018 there's still plenty to watch — free and legal — if you've got a decent enough over-the-air antenna. For the cost of a decent meal at the Sizzler you can get an antenna that pulls in stations from dozens of miles away, piping free 1080i content straight into your TV.

All you have to do is pick the right one for you.

The best OTA antennas