Entry Level Espresso Machine Review (Machines under $1,000)
First things first – a domestic espresso machine is not for everybody… they do require a certain level of patience to get the best out of their operation (these days, fairly minimal), and you do need to remember to clean their insides reasonably frequently – more on this later.
It’s also important to point out right at the beginning, that no matter how much money you spend on an espresso machine, it’s absolutely crucial to have fresh coffee and if you’re using beans (rather than supermarket pre-ground coffee) a good quality grinder is essential.
Now that we’ve got a couple of the important basics out of the way, the good news is that the choices available in the low-mid point range for domestic espresso machines are better than ever. The market has been going gangbusters for the last few years and as competition increases, so naturally, price points have dropped.
The competition hasn’t just been from the fancy-sounding Italian names, either. Our local manufacturers are catching up fast (and some say, even leapfrogging) the classic names. In recent years local companies Sunbeam and Breville, once known for their appliances rather than coffee machines, have been coming out with home machines that produce a result far better than their price might indicate.
Although in professional testing facilities, we tried as far as possible to emulate how each of the machines would be approached by a new purchaser
Once removed from the box, we set the machine up and plugged it in, according to the supplied instructions. We tried each machine on a fine grind, just a little coarser than you would use on a commercial espresso machine in a café. This is a tough test for a domestic espresso machine, so we noted the results for each machine, and then tested them again with the coarser-type pre-ground coffee available (vacuum-packed) in supermarkets.
Note that we didn’t measure warm-up time because most of them warm up adequately within 3-5 minutes, and quite frankly, temperature stability is a much more important factor for a coffee machine. This is a tricky thing for a manufacturer to get right, but it’s important because if the brewing temperature is too low, the coffee with be under-extracted, while if it’s too hot, you will end up with a burnt coffee.
To gauge temperature stability, we measured the temperature of each machine on an average of four extractions, each measured at random intervals over a period of 5-10 minutes via an electronic thermometer with wire probe in the cup.
Definitions vary but most agree that temperature leaving the group head should be around 92°C, while by the time it reaches the cup, it should be around 72-74 degrees (anything more than 75° is a problem!). We tried consecutive pours without purging (to test whether the heat had built up unacceptably high) and then purging (ie releasing water through the group head) if necessary.
There are basically two types of machine in the test – the basic manual machine (most of which were under $500) and the automatics, most of which sit at the top of the price range of machines tested here.
Gadgets & Widgets
Several of the machines tested featured a ‘crema-enhancing’ device in the filter holder. These systems are intended to give a professional looking crema on the top of your espresso but we have mixed feelings as to their usefulness – quite frankly they may give the impression of a good crema, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s the taste that counts and we have our doubts as to whether these systems make any difference.
Steaming - likewise many of the domestic machines sport a froth-enhancing attachment to the steam wand. These help give a sudsy cappuccino-type foam, but they typically deliver a result that’s too frothy – not the dense-textured foam that we’re looking for.
Instructions – especially for the uninitiated, clear, well-written instructions, with useful pictures can make a big difference. There was a wide variety, including some with line-drawings and others with photographic representations, some expressly written in English, and others part of a multi-translation booklet. Because they play such an important part in helping you along the way, we give a view on the instructions provided with each machine.
Manual vs Automatic Machines
In this test, we have included both manual & automatic machines. What is it that typifies an automatic machine in this price bracket? Typically it will have a built-in hopper into which you pour the beans. When you push the ‘on’ button, you will usually hear a (sometimes high-pitched) whining sound as it grinds the coffee, followed by a number of whirring, clunking sounds, which can last anything from 15-25 seconds (the machine is packing & tamping in the coffee). A short time later, you’ll see a stream of coffee pouring into your cup, usually of short duration (around 10 secs, as opposed to the 25 seconds you’d expect for an extraction on a manual machine.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of automatic over manual machines? There’s no question that automatics are great for convenience. For those who want no-fuss, freshly-brewed coffee in a hurry, they’re an excellent option. They’re not the machine to go for, however, if you like to have some degree of control over the coffee end product. While they tend to have buttons & dials which allow you to vary the dose & grind, in practice you simply don’t have the option to oversee the coffee-making process to the same degree that a manual machine will.
There are a couple of other things to keep in mind. Generally there is a question over which beans you’re grinding and which you’re actually brewing from. This is because with some automatics, the machine will be brewing coffee one or two grinds behind the sounds you are hearing the machine make. This means that you would be advised to ‘waste’ the first one or two coffees you make because otherwise you could actually be drinking coffee ground yesterday, with obvious freshness implications. Also impacting on freshness, is the fact that once you’ve poured the beans into the hopper, they’re normally very difficult to get out. The freshness of your coffee beans is impacted by a number of factors – of which heat is high up on the list. Check a demo model of the automatic machine you’re looking at purchasing, and if its design means the beans are susceptible to deterioration from heat in the hopper, this could be a hindrance to making that great-tasting espresso you’re after.
Lastly, be aware that automatic machines don’t exactly emulate the manual process. We’ve already mentioned their much shorter brew time. They also tend to produce a mellower, softer brew than a manual machine. However, whether this is a problem is a matter of personal preference. If you wish to produce the strong, full-bodied espresso flavour of your local café, an automatic may not be the best option, but this is really a matter of personal taste.
The Automatic Machines
The Incanto has been around for a few years and this is an updated version of the original model. It’s a smart-looking machine with a matt plastic silver casing, and is seated on a carousel platform, so that it can swivel easily (which you may or may not, find useful). It came with a 3-month water filter, which impressed our testers, but there was no advice as to where to go for a replacement. They also found the water tank a little fiddly to insert and remove.
The instructions included pictures, but were a little cluttered and some of the translation from Italian was clunky. Once you have mastered the instructions however, this unit is relatively easy to use, with quiet, no-fuss operation. It gave the sort of taste result typical of an automatic – relatively mild with a nice-looking crema. It had a useful, flexible steam wand and produced a moderate steam with a slightly wet quality. Overall, excellent value for money for an automatic unit.
Another machine which has stood the test of time, the Syncrony is an imposing-looking unit, again with the matt silver plastic casing. Instructions, although of the multi-language type, were reasonably intuitive, and overall it’s simple to use. Getting the grind/dose settings right took a bit of work (our first coffee produced a slightly light-coloured crema indicating under-extraction) but once we had adjusted the dials, this unit produced an acceptable result.
As with the Saeco Incanto, we found it a little frustrating that you couldn’t remove the frothing unit on the steam wand, but steam capacity itself was excellent, producing a very powerful stream. Despite finding its operation a little noisy (clunky, with a high-pitched grinding sound, the Syncrony is a competent automatic machine from a manufacturer with a good reputation.
De Longhi Magnifica 3200S
This is a beautiful-looking machine. The Magnifica comes with a huge ‘multi-language’ instruction manual – almost like reading a book! However, the instructions themselves were clear and were accompanied by a useful instruction video. Set-up was easy, as was operation, although we thought its grind cycle a little noisy.
The Magnifica produced a ‘professional-looking’ espresso with a nice crema and good body. In fact one of the comments was that of all the automatic machines, this was the unit that produced a result most like that of a traditional espresso machine (see panel on automatic vs manual machines). Steam pressure was a little slow to build up, but once it got there, it produced a nice quality steam. Although slightly more expensive than the Saeco Incanto, this is an excellent unit. Although the De Longhi 3200S Magnifica is at the top end of this price range, you’re getting a lot of automatic coffee machine for your money.
Sunbeam Aromatic (Semi-automatic)
You could describe this machine as a semi-automatic, although we would probably call it an ‘intelligent’ manual machine. The first thing you notice is its solid build – it’s really quite a heavy unit. Gone are the days when you’d associate the Sunbeam name with no more sophisticated appliances than toasters and electric kettles – it’s a serious espresso machine. Instructions were excellent and operation simple. This unit produced a nice-tasting result, although be aware that because of the crema-enhancing device in the filter holder you tend to be left with a wet residue in the filter basket (typical of a machine sporting this type of device).
The intelligence of this unit comes into play when you’ve made one brew, then steamed your milk, and then want to make a second round of coffees. A typical problem with domestic machines is that if you have just been steaming, the temperature will have built up to around 100 degree – too high for the next round of coffees, (espresso should be brewed at no more than 92 deg C). The Aromatic’s ‘intelligence’ comes in the form of an in-built chip that will not allow you to make the next coffee until the temperature has reduced to the optimal level – quite an innovation for a machine at this price level.
The Manual Machines
Gaggia Classic (Manual)
There’s something reassuring about the old-fashioned design of an espresso machine such as the Classic, although don’t get us wrong – with its simple, clean lines, it’s still a good-looking unit. While the group head is of solid construction, there’s a slight ‘disconnect’ when you insert and tighten the group handle – the machine itself is quite light and tends to skew around on the bench if you’re unprepared for it.
Although it suffered from the obligatory multi-language manual, instructions were relatively clear and easy to use. You should be aware that this is a machine of the older-style boiler variety and to ensure optimal operation, you should remember to purge after steaming. In effect, this means that for best results, after steaming you need to turn on the coffee button, then turn on the steam again until water comes out of the steam arm (allowing the boiler to re-fill) before making your next shot.
As the name suggests, this is a ‘classic’ unit, which produces a great espresso; it also produced an excellent steam. Having been around for a number of years, the Gaggia Classic is a tried and true performer.
De Longhi EC 750
The De Longhi EC 750, like its bigger brother, the Magnifica, is a very good-looking machine. The instructions were of the ‘multi-language’ type, but again, de Longhi have complemented these with a useful instruction video.
The De Longhi machines feature what they call the ESE system – which allows for use of a pod in the filter basket, instead of ground coffee. It’s a quick and convenient, and as far as we know, De Longhi is the only manufacturer which features this as an option on machines at this level.
The only design downside is a very lightweight filter holder with a clip device to hold the filter basket in place. We found this a little fiddly and potentially annoying; however if you don’t use it, the filter basket will drop out when you’re emptying used grounds.
We found the EC 750 ran a little hot – we measured in-cup temperature at around 83/4 deg C consistently over five pours. However, it produced quite a creditable taste result, and operation was a breeze. There’s also a ‘built-in’ milk-frother – this ran a little cold for our tastes, but depending on your own preferences, you might find this a nifty feature.
Sunbeam Café Ristretto
This is a basic little machine that does just about everything right. We found it quite smart to look at, with its black plastic exterior and it had a nice, solid feel for such a small unit. And, almost unbelievably for such a competent machine, it’s available at a fraction under $100!
At this price level, you wouldn’t expect too many bells & whistles, but the instructions were clear, it was simple to operate, and produced a surprisingly good-tasting coffee with an excellent crema. Although the steam was initially a little wet, the end-result was very good – we managed to produce a smooth, creamy-textured milk.
We found the Sunbeam Ristretto to be an uncomplicated unit with excellent temperature stability and, for it’s price, an amazing buy. Ideal for a first espresso machine purchase or a gift!
Breville Café Roma
The Breville Café Roma is a compact, smart-looking unit, of simple construction and operation. One of the features of the café Roma is a conveniently positioned water tank, with easy-to-see water levels.
We found the temperature of the Café Roma varied quite considerably (see comment on temperature stability in intro.?) – the in-cup range we tested was from 70-76 deg C. It produced a nice-looking crema, although it did have some bubbles (possibly as a result of the crema-enhancing device), and produced an adequate taste result. Breville also employ the rather fiddly basket clip on the filter holder, which we find annoying.
After removing the froth enhancer, this unit produced a good, consistent steam with a resulting nicely textured milk. This is a popular unit with good reason – it’s a nice-looking machine and represents good value for money.
Breville ‘800 Class’
This is an interesting-looking machine – you’ll either love it or hate it, but our team certainly found its brushed aluminium ‘moulded-metal’ look distinctive. Design-wise, the team also appreciated the clever access to the internal water tank. We’re not quite sure where the ‘800 class’ nomenclature came from, but presumably it means that it’s a step or two up from the lower levels, and this unit performed nicely.
Instructions, with accompanying photographs, were clear and intuitive. While the in-cup temperature varied a little, it was certainly acceptable and while it produced only an average result on the pre-ground coffee, surprisingly, the machine produced an excellent shot on the finer (commercial) grind. Steaming was excellent, with a strong stream of good, dry steam. This is a very good mid-priced manual unit.
Saeco Via Venezia
Another classic manual espresso machine with an excellent build and finish, the Via Venezia is a proven performer. It has the same, uncomplicated boiler construction as the Gaggia Classic, however, this is where the similarities with the Classic end. Unlike the tall, lean Classic, the Via Venezia is short and squat.
The ‘supacrema’ pressurized group handle creates an abundant crema, although it exhibited a grainy and “fine bubbled” appearance rather than the beautifully smooth, thick appearance that we have come to expect from real espresso. Likewise, the Via Venezia is unique amongst the manual machines, in that it produces a brew similar to that which is produced by the automatics- ie a mellower, softer brew (see panel: manual vs automatic machines).
Steaming is a little slow but produces an excellent result. Instructions, of the (seemingly obligatory for a European-sourced machine) multi-language variety, were adequate. If you’re looking for a good, solid manual machine, the Saeco Via Venezia is a very good choice.
Cleaning - it’s worth cleaning your machine regularly (follow manufacturer’s instructions). Making an espresso involves the release of delicate oils and aromas from the coffee beans. Although these are natural products, like any organic substance, they can build up and become rancid and stale, which will eventually affect the taste of your coffee. Keeping your machine clean is a bit of a chore, especially with manual machines, but it’s worth doing, and with the newer (automatic) machines it’s now often a matter of a simple cleaning cycle programmed in!