OTA Tuner For Home Theaters

In my home theater setup, every source of content needs to run through the AV Receiver in order to make use of my 5.1 speaker setup and to make operation as simple as possible. This prevents me from using the over-the-air (OTA) tuner that is built into my television. As a cord-cutter, being able to watch the free OTA channels is important to me. When I went out to research my options, I was surprised at how few there were. I realize that most people just use the tuner and speakers built into their TV. For those of us with projectors or complex audio setups, an external tuner can be very helpful.

Home Theater Setup Diagram
Image created with Gliffy

First Attempt

I wanted a stand alone OTA tuner that could output HD and surround sound. I wanted a HDMI output to keep my setup as clean as possible. My first web search was something like "ota tuner hdmi" which helped me find products like the Samsung DTBH260F and the Channel Master CM-7001. Both of those products ran about $140 which seemed very high to me. Unable to find any better options, I ordered the Channel Master CM-7001. The CM-7001 worked very well for me for about a month, then it started dropping the audio after being on for a couple of days. The only way to fix the audio was to reboot the box, annoying but I could live with it. Then about a year after purchasing the product, it quit completely. To be fair, I never contacted Channel Master about my problems so I can't fault them. They may very well have taken care of replacing the product.

The Search For Something Different

After having a somewhat sour experience with the CM-7001, I once again set out to find an external OTA tuner with HDMI output. I wanted to try something different in the hopes that I would not have to restart the box weekly. Once again I found myself with very few options, and the options I found were all expensive. The extra year of time had produced some new options though. Channel Master had come out with their DVR+ which does look very cool, I must admit. I did not really care about the DVR feature though so the $249/$399 price tag was not worth it to me. I also researched tuners that could rebroadcast the OTA signal across a home network like the SiliconDust HDHomeRun series. This seemed like a clunky setup for me, given that I only have one TV that I want to watch OTA content on. Also the cost was still at least $129. Another option was the TiVo Roamio Series but the $199-$599 plus a subscription fee was way out of my price range.

A New Hope

After days of research and frustration, somehow I ended up finding the iView 3500STBII. The product is marketed as a "digital converter box" for people with TVs that don't have digital tuners. But it will also output to HDMI, in HD, with surround sound. Additionally, you can attach a USB storage and use it as a DVR. The best part is that I only paid $32.40 for the box!

The iView 3500STBII
Image Credit: iView

The Verdict

After receiving the 3500STBII I hooked it up to my system. A quick channel scan found all the channels that I am used to receiving. So far there have been zero issues (installed August 22, 2014). The UI is not the most intuitive but it does work. I played around with the DVR functionality and it seemed to work decently. Scheduled recording seem to be linked to channels and times rather than the actual show, so if your favorite show moves to a new time you may have to tweak the settings. The DVR recordings are stored as .mts files which play just fine in VLC. One annoying thing is that the file names do not contain the name of the program recorded, so finding a specific recording can be difficult.

Overall you get a basic tuner and a basic DVR for a very cheap price, and that is exactly what I wanted. I think the 3500STBII would be a fine addition to many home theater setups.

If you have any questions, please hit me up in the comments.