Choosing An Espresso Machine

Prosumer machines over £450

Also see:

We are talking here about the high end offerings typically called “prosumer machines” and light commercial single group machines costing £500-1600 and not the more typical cheaper high street brands such as Gaggia, Krups etc.

Some things to consider from a reviewers perspective

I have reviewed many different types and makes of domestic and light commercial coffee machine, often the question comes up “which machine should I buy?” This is a very difficult question to answer, because often the reasons for a particular choice are complex and personal. The eventual long term satisfaction with the machine purchased, does mean fulfilling these “personal aspects”


The Pie chart above shows the major decision areas and the relative weighting a purchaser often gives to them. As you can see the 3 biggest factors influencing purchase are:

Looks and the perception of others

How you see the machine based on the look of it, your personal taste and the influence of other “key decision makers”. These “key decision makers” could be spouse, family, friends or even the internet e.g. forums, reviews and the like.

As a reviewer I only really have to think about whether it looked really nasty or not, in general I don’t really care. The reviews have photos and so I don’t need to spell it out, this one is just for the purchaser to decide.

I can’t do much about how you think others will perceive your purchase, only you know what will please your spouse (if married). If others perception of your purchase is important, that’s a bit more problematic….you join a club and own an object of desire, BUT, it may not necessarily be the best machine for you. Only advice I can give here, is don’t worry about what other people think.

Perceived Quality

This will often purely be down to gut feel, anecdotal evidence and a preference for a particular manufacturer or look of machine. Many areas influence this, but the most common are internet and magazines.

This is another area where I can’t easily influence your thinking. If you think brand X better than brand Y, very little I say is going to convince you otherwise. All I can do is state what I find and my perception of things in the actual quality area and hope you put your “head where your heart is”. A huge amount of time and money is spent on building a brand….sometimes I wonder if more of that money should be spent on product quality


This is a lot more difficult to quantify than you would think, it’s not as simple as “I need to do X and Y” “does the machine do X & Y”. oh no, here it gets a lot more complicated, think about people who choose a 4x4 car based on it’s off-road ability, even the adverts show these cars doing all sorts of impressive things “off-road”, yet 95% of the purchasers will NEVER take their cars off-road. The function you want, and what you need are 2 very different things.

When I review a machine the above factors have importance, but I do not give them anywhere near the same rating as the potential purchaser will often do. Sometimes heavily sales orientated reviews also give these aspects a high rating. Sure, the reviews I do are for a company who wants to sell these machines, but with some major considerations:

I don’t allow my reviews to be edited and will only change them to correct inaccuracies (which is partly why they are protected files)
I am asked to review a machine ruthlessly from a standpoint of “if it isn’t any good we don’t want to stock it”. Of course they may find a good machine is not a good seller, in spite of a good review (The Isomac Relax Automatica is an example of an excellent machine, that doesn’t seem to be a good seller).

  • I have not bought the machine; I just have the use of it for a while, so no “rose coloured glasses”.
  • I don’t get hung up over good and bad points all machines have them, so why not bring them out, better to find out in a review than after you have bought it.
  • Think about the drink types you are most likely to make, your lifestyle, etc. and choose your machine accordingly.

Espresso only – single boiler non heat exchanger machine, because your temperature stability will be good, cooling flushes small and you can always switch on the steam function on those odd occasions when you need milk. Prosumer machines like this are actually becoming less common.

Wide variety of drinks – Single Boiler heat exchanger machine, this will have steam available whenever you want it, and providing a cooling flush is done can make decent espresso. The best of all worlds at an economical price point.

Wide Variety of drinks, emphasis on espresso quality – Twin boiler machines (separate boilers for steam/hot water and coffee brew water). These machine can generally give a more consistent espresso quality in the hands of the novice user and can be used to “fine tune” the espresso in the hands of the experienced (as most have the ability to control brew temperature quite tightly). The have other advantages over HX machines, such as no large cooling flush needed and a dedicated team boiler is usually able to maximise steaming ability, rather than be a compromise between brew temp/steaming power in an HX machine.

Plumbed or not plumbed – Plumbing a machine in can be a blessing or a curse; personally, unless a machine has a dual function (internal tanked or mains plumbed operation at the flick of a switch), I am always inclined to choose a tanked machine. However, a little known fact, many machines with rotary pumps that have to be “plumbed” into the mains, can actually draw quite happily from a tank. and don’t need positive pressure (however there may be a few wrinkles around priming the machine, especially when hot!)

How big and commercial machines – Most people do not have the luxury of a lot of space in the kitchen, don’t get a machine that is too large and ensure it will fit under your cupboards. Commercial machines are really not advisable, they are usually far too large, have expensive components and very large boilers/heating elements. Just because they are for commercial use, doesn’t make them “better”, remember the commercial guys have them on service contracts and don’t really care much except that it works. Part prices are not such a consideration and many of the parts will “time expire” in a hot machine, so whether you are using it a lot or not may not have that much effect on parts replacement. The commercial machines are often “clever” with clever electronics…..these can be a nightmare to diagnose faults on and are invariably very expensive to replace.

Hot water – using your £1000 espresso machine as a kettle is not a great idea, I personally find the water in the boiler has a copper taint to it (I have a very sensitive taste for this) and even in steel boilers the taste of constantly boiled water leaves something to be desired. A kettle is £20 or less and does a far superior job of heating water. It also has the advantage of not running extra heating cycles on your espresso machine, all of which involves wear on more expensive components. I am still waiting for plastic steam/hot water boilers on dual boiler espresso machines (one day).

The areas that don’t get as much weighting as they should

Actual Quality

Well this is something that is never apparent from the look of the machine and anecdotal evidence has to be taken with a “pinch of salt” here. It is also not any one thing, but a combination of factors:

  • Component Quality
  • Assembly
  • Design e.g. a good quality component can be in the wrong place, causing faults
  • Testing

This quality is actually very important and beauty is only skin deep. Don’t expect a cheap espresso machine to have great internals; you often get what you pay for (although not always true). I have also seen problems introduced into quite expensive machines, simply because of sloppy assembly.

The components used within the machine should be easily available and inexpensive. The wide use of a component by many different manufacturers usually implies reliability. Some components are almost ubiquitous, simply because they never seem to fail e.g. The small Sirai autofill solenoid valves

Even the best machines can be let down by poor assembly. Components torqued too tight, over liberal use of thread-lock, inconsistent positioning and bad adjustment. Generally when trying to disassemble/reassemble a machine and inspecting the internals, poor assembly becomes immediately apparent. In any machine you are looking to buy, try and see if there are pictures of the inside, better if the pictures are annotated and even better still if the reviewer understands what they are looking at.

Design is a tricky one, we all have opinions, me included and hindsight is a wonderful thing, however there are some basic design rules.

Ensure the design is:

  • economical and environmentally friendly - don’t make it necessary to change the whole boiler for heating element replacement (oh yes there is at least one machine like this)
  • easy to work on – it’s really annoying to have to remove the boiler to change something like a Vibe pump
  • electronics – out of the way of hot stuff whenever possible and if possible mounted low in the machine or compartmentalised and ventilated.
  • Access – The cases of some machines come off faster than a Ferrari, with others you can loose the will to live by the time you get to the internals.

Ease & Cost of Maintenance

Generally something the purchaser only thinks about when something goes wrong, they have to descale or need to buy a part etc.

I cannot emphasise enough that espresso machines will go wrong, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sometime soon. The combination of heat, water, steam and moving parts, will go wrong in the end. How easy is it going to be to work on, how expensive parts are? Complex parts tend to have higher prices, as do proprietary parts (if no one else is making them, there is no reason for them to compete on price!). Look for a machine that uses standard components that are made by a number of manufacturers or in sufficient volumes that the price is going to be competitive. e.g. the E61 type lower portion of the group tends to be a decent choice because its 58mm and bits and bobs are widely available from a number of different manufacturers.

Look for a machine that is going to be easy to work on, complicated electronics are not usually that easy to fix and component replacement tends to be the preferred method. Diagnostic equipment is often required. The simpler the better and the components being easily accessible is very helpful. If you see liberal use of PTFE tape for part assembly (I can think of one make that does this), this is a good thing when it comes to removal of a fitting. I suspect the main reason the manufacturers don’t do it is it takes more time and they don’t care if you snap a fitting trying to remove it 5 years later!


They say “love is blind” and to a certain extent that is very true for espresso machines, sometimes no matter what the problems the prospective purchaser is blind to them. Sometimes the result is a commercial machine dominating 30% of the kitchen, a mains plumb only machine that’s been running from a pump and container system for a year or more, or a single boiler non heat exchanger machine for a latte/cappuccino drinker.

Try and buy a machine that is truly practical in terms of your lifestyle, your needs and the environment you have within the kitchen. Try and avoid the “need to impress people in the forums”, or the “trying to feel worthy” machines. Sure, if they really are a great machine for YOU, then buy one, BUT never buy one just to impress others. Silly advice I know, but I have seen it happen before.

Don’t set your heart on a particular machine and be blinded to everything else, just because of worldwide positive reviews. Most owners who drop 700-1000 big ones on a machine are going to be pretty positive about it and they are not going to necessarily be the best source of advice. Many of them will never have removed the case of the machine; if they have it’s to marvel at the technology, but without having any other frame of reference to base it on. I have given workshops and had people insist they want machine X, asked me what I thought….I have said “machine Y is better made and cheaper”, but the advice usually falls on deaf ears. Just don’t fall in love with an idea!

To conclude

Buying a machine is a significant decision; the machine is going to be with you for a very long time and will require periodic maintenance (no matter what people may tell you). Ensure you read reviews and any other information available, those reviews should have pictures of the internals…because after all that’s what makes the coffee (the outside is just window dressing). Is there the perfect machine…..NO, is there the perfect machine for you…YES.

I have not recommended any make or type of machine, simply because it’s ultimately a personal decision. However I will say that there is a make of HX (Heat Exchanger machine/s) that I personally believe are a reference machine by which all others can be judged when considering the 3 least important areas to the purchaser, but perhaps the most important to a reviewer….actual quality, ease of maintenance and practicality. The most surprising part, they are not the most expensive machines in their class!