The 9 Best AM/FM Car Antennas
The Original Wireless Technology
The initial focus was on amplitude modulation, which ended up the dominant form of mass communication for 30 years, until television's arrival.
The year was 1894. Following in the pioneering footsteps of Heinrich Hertz — the first to conclusively prove the existence of electromagnetic waves — 20-year-old Guglielmo Marconi spent long nights working in his parents' Northern Italy attic. There, backed by his father's investment, he conducted a short-range telegraphy experiment that would slowly transform into the first commercially viable, long-range radio communications system. The young polymath adapted his wireless telegraph to transmit signals produced by the carbon microphone designs that Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner had invented. Widely considered the father of radio communications, Marconi would go on to perform the world's first transatlantic transmission in 1901.
Engineers spent the next 20 years developing radio technology robust enough for widespread use, and a large number of great minds contributed in different ways the 1920 birth of American radio broadcast. The initial focus was on amplitude modulation, which ended up the dominant form of mass communication for 30 years, until television's arrival. At that point, engineers turned to frequency modulation that allowed for much-increased sound quality.
Regardless of the modulation method, radio found its way quite quickly into that most American of inventions: the automobile. The first Motorola radio receiver was released in 1930 and quickly became standard in the upstart American car. Initial reactions were mixed, as some of the more cautious municipalities considered actual bans on car audio, citing distraction concerns. Benefits like weather information, traffic updates, and — obviously — on-the-go entertainment won out, and radio became a mainstay for decades. Now a popular company among automobile audiophiles, Blaupunkt sold the first consumer FM car stereos in 1952, though it was another 10 years before many stations would take advantage of the increased sound quality. Widespread use of AM and FM radio continued, peaking in the 1970s, and recently seeing a huge drop-off in listeners due to digital radio and online streaming. But the mark radio made on American culture is indelible, and believe it or not, there are still plenty of groovy tunes on the air today.
Hi-Fi Stereo Vs. The Long Ranger
Rarely has a format war ended so amicably.
Unfortunately, AM is also relatively susceptible to electromagnetic interference that can result from those very same weather emergencies.
As recording quality had increased, it exposed the somewhat hollow nature of AM transmissions, resulting in the industry adoption of frequency modulation specifically for music. Amplitude is the distance from equilibrium to a wave's crest, also called its magnitude. Frequency operates on the other axis, representing in Hertz the number of times a signal cycles per second. It's also defined as the length of time from a wave's crest to its trough.
AM radio remains effective because it takes up a minimal portion of the available frequencies, and it offers a considerably longer range. It's used for talk shows and news radio, as well as the NOAA Weather Radio, which operates on lower frequencies than consumer units usually receive. Unfortunately, AM is also relatively susceptible to electromagnetic interference that can result from those very same weather emergencies.
FM radio has been the over-the-air choice for car audio since its adoption, simply because it transmits at a considerably higher resolution than AM. It's not affected much by the weather, although station range is generally quite shorter than that of AM radio. It also takes up a significantly wider swath of the overall frequency band, and it's been moved up or down the spectrum numerous times in the past to accommodate additions to federal radio band licensing. And, generally speaking, the same automobile antenna will pick up both types of transmission, so you certainly don't have to choose one over the other.
More Than Just Rabbit Ears
When Marconi raised his antenna up in the air, his system's range jumped immediately from a half-mile to almost five, and AM/FM antenna placement is just as important in receiving today's refined AM and FM transmissions as it was then. On-air music catalogs are more thorough and of higher fidelity than ever in history, and there is probably more news to listen to than ever before. If you can see the rust on the outside of your car's antenna, it's safe to say that the inside may not be functioning perfectly, either. For that matter, some drivers can't see their antenna at all — because it's not there anymore. Those drivers will need a replacement in order to enjoy the weekly top 40 on their next weekend road trip.
You'll find a lot of short, stubby models that claim to outperform the tall, flexible whips of decades past, and thanks to years of refinement, that's very often true.
The style found in cars for many decades is called a whip antenna. This straightforward design consists of a single unit of conductive metal that sticks straight up in the air. The body of a whip unit provides the rigidity as well as the reception. Newer vehicles tend to include antennas with considerably more aerodynamic, fin-like profiles, and it's easy to find aftermarket solutions shaped the same way. You'll find a lot of short, stubby models that claim to outperform the tall, flexible whips of decades past, and thanks to years of refinement, that's very often true. There are also a few interior-mounted antennas with slightly more complex designs. If you're dedicated to exploring far-off places, you may even consider adding a GPS antenna or cell booster to help you maintain connectivity in more remote areas.
Remember to also consider the installation process while choosing an AM/FM car antenna. Some will require new holes in body panels, and many owners are (rightfully) hesitant to undergo this kind of DIY task. If that sounds like you, keep an eye out for a model that can bolt directly to your previous antenna mount, or one that goes inside the cabin, because it's easier to affix an antenna to a protected interior.
The right AM/FM car antenna should fit your needs functionally, as well as physically. Whichever model you choose, you'll benefit from decades of impressive advancement in design, materials, and production techniques, so as long as they're still pumping out AM and FM radio, you'll be able to pick it up clearly.