Sony is one of the early pioneers of the custom electronics and home integration movements we know today. In recognition of the 30th Anniversary of the launch of the Sony Digital Signal Transfer (DST) System that stands as one of the first whole-home distribution systems, Mike Lyons, Sony’s project manager, and some of the other key players involved submitted their insights below:

As the “virtual” CEDIA Expo illustrated last Fall, the multi-billion-dollar custom integration business is strong and resilient enough to weather a global pandemic.  But some might have forgotten that the custom integration industry, which is now comprised of networked video and audio entertainment systems, interactive HVAC, security and home automation technologies, is all an outgrowth off a Sony technological solution.

It began as the brain-child of Sony marketing leaders, who identified the need for a “whole-house” entertainment distribution system to send music and video between devices from room to room. Though a seemingly simple task, the originators faced not only a huge technological challenge, but the need to convince members of divergent product and engineering groups about the concept’s significant benefits and market potential.

It began more than 30 years ago, as a collaboration between Sony’s U.S. and Toyko-based marketing and product teams, which birthed the concept of a transport system for video and audio signals throughout the home.  Pre-dating even CEDIA, this effort would help to shape what we know of the integration concept today.

In the mid-1980s, Sony was one of a handful of multi-national AV manufacturers of receivers, CD players/changers, cassette decks, VCRs and televisions. To help these devices connect with and “talk” to one another, Sony engineers created a Serial Infra-Red Control (SIRCs) protocol which offered reliable communication and inter-operation between components using touch panels or remote controls as an interface. The early form of SIRCs paved the way for the first “learning” remotes that controlled disparate products from Sony as well as other brands.  

In 1990, Sony among the first manufacturers to join the Custom Electronics Designers and Installers Association (CEDIA), which established a technical support division for members called the Consumer Integrated Systems (CIS) Group. This was initially headed by CEDIA Hall of Fame inductee, Brad Kibble.

Building on this foundation, the Sony Consumer Products Group under then president John Briesch developed a new concept for home AV product control called the Sony Digital Signal Transfer (DST) System. 

According to Briesch, “With the creation of the home video recorder and the transition of audio from analog to digital, Sony envisioned the consumer demand for a dynamic new home entertainment experience beyond cable television.  To accomplish this, we needed to simplify the interaction between devices and pave the way for technologies that would lead us into the world of DVD and HDTV. DST was our answer”.

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The DST system was conceived from insights that Sony gained as the co-developer (with Philips) of the Compact Disc.  The digital world was rapidly expanding and SPDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) was already a standard for the communication and transmission of CD-quality audio. Understanding how to move these signals over multiple devices enabled the Sony engineering team to create a unique algorithm that used 75 ohm coaxial cable as the means of distribution.  The system could support 44.1kHz/16-bit uncompressed audio, along with multiple analog audio and video sources, all of which could be transmitted within a 6 MHz bandwidth.  

The use of coaxial cable for this was inspired. Cable TV penetration had already reached more than 50% of U.S. households and growing rapidly. This led the home construction industry to endorse the use of coaxial cable pre-wiring for new home sales.  “Wired for Cable TV” became an in-demand marketing feature that ultimately opened the door to other uses for this new single “pipeline”.

In addition to digital audio, the DST system could support two video sources and provide access to all of these via a supplied touch pad and remote control.  Up to 16 rooms, each with independent volume and control, could be networked and DST was the one of the only systems at that time to include a digital-to-analog converter and an analog-to-digital converter for encoded analog sources.  While this is common today, DST was announced in 1989, when 802.11 WiFi was years away and CAT 3 cable was rarely used.

The launch of DST became an entirely new business for Sony and its dealers.  Led by director of product planning Kohei Haneishi and project manager Mike Lyons, the U.S. team provided the necessary direction to Sony engineers in Japan.  But since the concept was unique, it was necessary to convince dealers that DST was a viable, potential business opportunity.

In the early days, Sony worked closely with several retailers, including CTA Hall of Fame inductee and Texas-based AV specialist Bjorn Dybdahl.

“This was the late 80’s and early 90’s and companies like Bjorn’s needed to utilize components from many different suppliers in order to deliver multi-room audio/video to the home”, Dybdahl said. “What Sony did with DST was simplify that process.  We love to introduce the latest technology and working with DST allowed us to reach early adopters. Credit should be given to the Sony management team for acknowledging this and what it meant to those of us in the integration community”.

The “proof of concept” materialized in a luxury home outfitted with a high-end system by a Sony dealer/installer. Sony engineers from Japan were given a tour of the futuristic showcase by Sony U.S. marketing managers. The resulting distribution system involved more than two miles of speaker and control cables connecting 10 rooms and a patio, in a way that would inspire any cable multi-system operator (MSO) at that time.

Based upon this home tour, Sony’s engineers concluded that DST could dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of custom integration to the benefit of both dealers and consumers.  It also simplified the sales transaction and installation process, allowing more multi-room systems to be sold or upgraded in the same period of time.

The Sony DST System premiered at the first CEDIA Expo, which was held on Amelia Island in October 1990. 

As Tom Doherty, the founding president of CEDIA and a leading system integrator stated: “CEDIA had formed only a year earlier and our message to the industry was that custom installation needed to be taken seriously. Being a fledgling new group, Sony bringing their DST trade show exhibit to our first CEDIA Expo, along with several of their key executives, contributed significantly to our overall credibility and respect.”

The ability to seamlessly integrate the home theater room with a means to distribute music and movies throughout the house became something that’s synonymous with Sony.  Despite the technical challenges that would arise along the way, the Sony DST System began the discussion on home systems integration on which the custom electronics industry relies today.

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