Espresso shot being pulled, visible via bottomless portafilter
Jason Perlow/CNN Underscored

An espresso drink,the all-important elixir of freshly roasted coffee and steamed milk that helps people jump-start their days, is a mainstay of European and American cafe culture. But when the pandemic threw a bag of bad beans into the mix and sent so many people home, the last year-and-a-half saw a huge spike of interest in home espresso machines.

To help you get the best cafe experience at home, we tested 20 different home espresso machines over six weeks, ranging in price from $100 on up to $1700 and with wildly varying feature sets, performance, technologies and build quality. But, after going through over 20 pounds of coffee and pulling hundreds of shots, we found the best extracting, crema-producing, milk-frothing machines for the money.

The best affordable espresso machine

If you want to make real espresso drinks at home, but you’re on a budget the Delonghi Stilosa will give you great coffee and steamed milk with a little practice.



The best compact automatic espresso machine

The Breville Bambino Plus takes the guesswork out of great espresso, with automatic features to help you through every step of the process of making cafe-quality drinks.

Best espresso Machine for beginning coffee hobbyists

The latest update to a 30-year-old design, the Gaggia Classic Pro doesn’t have as many automatic features as some more modern machines, but there’s no better machine for learning barista skills. And it makes great espresso and milk drinks.

Best Automatic Espresso Machine with Grinder

If you don’t have a grinder or prefer an all-in-one-machine, the Breville Barista Pro has the same great automatic features as the Bambino Plus, adding a quality grinder and a little more programmablity.

Best High-End Single Boiler Espresso Machine

Beautifully designed, built like a tank and well-suited to the serious hobbyist looking for a luxury machine, the ECM Casa V is a traditional single-boiler machine that should last many years and give you cafe-quality espresso and steamed milk along the way.

Best Dual-Boiler Espresso Machine

If you’re making a lot of milk drinks, the Rancilio Silvia Pro — an updated, well-engineered version of the classic design — has two boilers for always-on-convenience whether you want an espresso or a latte.

Best Superautomatic Espresso Machine

If you want espresso drinks at the touch of a button, the Philips 3220 does everything for you, from grinding to milk steaming, without any additional effort. It’s always ready to serve up a quality espresso, latte or cappuccino.

Best affordable espresso machine: Delonghi Stilosa ($99.99; target.com)

DeLonghi Stilosa
Jason Perlow/CNN Underscored
DeLonghi Stilosa

Key specs

  • Semi-Automatic
  • Pressurized filter basket
  • Single thermoblock
  • Manual controls
  • Warranty: 2 Years

Available for just under $100, the Delonghi Stilosa is the machine you should consider if you want real espresso drinks at home and need to spend as little as possible. It’s a capable machine, though it takes a little technique and practice to get the best results — you’ll need to grind the coffee to powder level (all espresso machines need to be paired with a good grinder) and make sure you tamp properly.

Even with a lot of espresso experience, we threw away about a dozen shots as we got the hang of the Stilosa. The machine heats up quickly and is ready to go in about a minute, though you’ll need to prime the pump to move water through the system before pulling your first shot. But once we got comfortable with the machine, we were able to easily pull satisfying shots. The drinks weren’t on the level of our better built, more full-featured recommendations like the Bambino Plus or Gaggia Classic, but again, this is a solid product for the money.

To froth the milk, you’ll need another 15 or 20 seconds to ramp up to steam mode.It does a solid job for basic milk drinks, but you won’t be able to produce latte-art quality microfoam.

The Stilosa is perfect for someone who drinks an occasional espresso, or just has one in the morning, but it isn’t as sturdy as the more expensive machines. It’s plasticky construction isn’t likely to hold up in the long term, and it probably isn’t worth replacing or repairing the pump once it wears out (vibratory pumps can wear out with heavy use in as little as a couple of years) as you might do on a more expensive machine.

The Stilosa also uses a nonstandard dual-wall pressurized portafilter, which is meant to let you use preground or coarse-ground coffee, but it can be difficult and messy to tamp and clean up with the lightweight, plastic supplied tamper, so you’ll want a straight edge to level it, such as the flat end of a knife). The supplied plastic tamper is flimsy and can be hard to use to compress your coffee puck.

If you’re on a strict budget or just exploring the idea of home espresso, the Stilosa is a reasonable purchase that can make great coffee, if not last a lifetime. If you can’t find the Stilosa, the Capresso EC is a very similar machine with nearly identical build quality and performance, and frankly we had a hard time deciding between the two. We give the edge to the Delonghi because of its longer warranty; two years to Capresso’s one.

Best Compact Automatic Espresso Machine: Breville Bambino Plus ($499.95; bedbathandbeyond.com)

Breville Bambino Plus
Jason Perlow/CNN Underscored
Breville Bambino Plus

Key specs

  • Automatic
  • Single thermocoil
  • PID temperature control
  • Digital controls
  • Programmable shot length, brew temperature, steam temperature
  • Warranty: One Year (extended 3- and 4- year coverage is available at additional cost)

The Bambino Plus is Breville’s entry-level compact espresso machine, and with its speedy startup, automated functions and solid build quality it’s a good choice for beginners who want high-quality espresso drinks without practice or guesswork. Other machines in this price range of similar build quality don’t offer the same amount of digital control or convenience available in the Bambino Plus.

The Bambino Plus incorporates a lot of the features  Breville uses on its more expensive and larger machines, so you can easily get a ton of control over your shots. More importantly for many users, its “ThermoJet” thermocoil heats up in just three seconds, so you’ll be ready to pull a shot almost immediately after turning it on. Many traditional espresso machines take 10 minutes or more to come up to temperature.

A built-in PID control keeps the temperature accurate, and you can choose and program settings for shot temperature and timing. Plus, the process is automated; you just push a button and the machine pulls the shot according to predefined settings. Everything on the machine is operated digitally via the lighted front panel buttons; means there’s not even a dedicated power switch.

With the right powder coffee grind, we found this machine pulls an above average shot of espresso with good crema when using the included non-pressurized baskets. The integrated milk frother with adjustable wand (up and down only) works well for latte and cappuccino and it has a hot water setting if you want to use it to make tea. We struggled, however, to achieve the truly cafe-quality microfoam the company claims in its literature, at least in the time we had the machine.

The reservoir is decently sized and simple to remove – it lifts out easily, though if the machine is flush against the kitchen wall, it must be rotated to access it. It comes with a light, non-calibrated, non-standard 54 mm tamper that can be replaced for about $35, but there are also third-party alternatives available. The drip tray is easy to remove and clean, but it’s small and can overflow easily, which is typical of compact models.This means you’ll want to remove and clean it after every couple of shots.You’ll also want a decent grinder to pair with this machine if you expect to produce the powder-level grind needed for optimal performance.

The Bambino has a sleek design and is available in a range of finishes to match your kitchen decor, but as with most Breville equipment, it isn’t as easily user-serviceable as a traditional machine like the Gaggia Classic, which is easily repaired (or upgraded) at home with standard tools.

That said, should something go wrong, Breville’s customer service is excellent and easy to work with in our experience, and extended warranties are available for the Bambino Plus. Typically Breville can either repair or offer an exchange on a refurbished model at a significant discount in the event you run into issues with the machine.

The Bambino Plus is about the same price as the Gaggia Classic, which we also recommend, but it’s a very different machine. The Gaggia, with its traditional design and all-analog controls, is meant for those interested in getting into espresso as a hobby. The Breville Bambino plus, with it’s fast-heating thermocoil design and digital convenience, is intended for someone who isn’t looking to develop barista skills, but just wants good espresso drinks with a minimum of fuss — and it delivers just that.

Best Espresso Machine for Beginning Coffee Hobbyists: Gaggia Classic Pro ($448.09; amazon.com)

Gaggia Classic Pro
Jason Perlow/CNN Underscored
Gaggia Classic Pro

Key specs

  • Semi-automatic
  • Single boiler
  • Analog controls
  • Warranty: 1 Year

The Gaggia Classic Pro is a traditionalist’s home espresso machine, and has been the gateway to a serious coffee hobby for many espresso enthusiasts. The Gaggia is built much like it has been for the past three decades: no advanced electronics, three plastic rocker switches for controls (on/off, shot pull/pump, and steam mode). The manual steam valve is operated by a plastic knob that you open and close to control the level of steam.

It’s a very different experience than the Breville Bambino Plus — it demands more effort, but if you put in that effort you can get better results, and if you’re the kind of person who really likes to fine-tune your recipes, it is likely to suit you well. The Gaggia is a semi-automatic machine, so you control the shot length manually — there’s no programmability at all.

You’ll have to learn a little about pulling espresso shots to use the Gaggia effectively, but once you hone your home barista skills you’ll find the simple design and controls will give you the maximum amount of control over your coffee-making experience, and it’s capable of making excellent coffee drinks. It will give you a feeling for the variables of espresso brewing — temperature, grind size, and pressure — that you won’t get from an automatic like the Bambino Plus.

We recommend using the Classic Pro for a while before deciding if you ever need anything more sophisticated. For many people, this will be the only home espresso machine  they will ever need – I know folks who have had them for 20 years plus and have not done more than change filter baskets, or on the rare instance, added a PID for more accurate temperature control. Since it’s been around for so long spare parts and upgrade kits are easily available, and the Gaggia is so simple to work on you can take care of repairs and modifications with everyday tools.

We did struggle a bit as to whether to recommend the Gaggia Classic or its longtime rival, the Rancilio Silvia M V6. Frankly both are great machines. The Gaggia is the Fiat of the home espresso machine world, while its longtime rival the Silvia is the slightly more upscale, sportier Alfa Romeo.

The Gaggia Classic Pro has a 3.5oz boiler made of aluminum which uses external heating elements, whereas the Rancilio sports an internal heating element for its 12oz boiler made of brass. The Gaggia draws 1425 watts of power to the Rancilio’s 952 watts. For beginning users, we give the edge to the Gaggia because with more power and smaller volume it can get up to steam temperature more quickly. And it costs more than $300 less.

Best Automatic Espresso Machine with Grinder: Breville Barista Pro ($799.95; bedbathandbeyond.com)

Breville Barista Pro
Jason Perlow/CNN Underscored
Breville Barista Pro

Key specs

  • Automatic
  • Built-in grinder
  • Single thermocoil
  • PID temperature controls
  • Digital controls
  • LCD display
  • Programmable shot length, brew temperature, steam temperature
  • Warranty: 2 Years

From a mechanical perspective, the Bambino Plus and the Barista Pro are almost identical, and they produce similar grade espresso. The Barista Pro adds a grinder, however, which can save you at least $200 if you don’t already own a good one, making the machine a good buy overall.

With the integrated grinder and the speedy ThermoJet heating system (the same used in the Bambino Plus), you can fire up the machine and be enjoying an espresso in minutes — the only faster way to an espresso or latte would be to use a superautomatic machine, but the Barista Pro will get you a superior drink.The Barista Pro’s digitally controlled, 30 setting integrated grinder made a powder-level, good crema-producing shot at grind level 5 using its adjustable dosage timer (we liked 15 seconds).

As with the Bambino Plus, we liked the lighted controls, and especially appreciated  the easy-to-read, high-contrast LCD and automated shot controls with adjustable shot temperature and shot length. The milk frother does a nice job with lattes and cappuccinos, the ample-sized reservoir is easy to remove and we appreciated the easy to clean drip tray.

The Barista series requires proprietary filter packs, which must be replaced every 30 tanks full (that’s about a 2-month replacement schedule if heavily used). These go for about $10 per 6-pack on Amazon. However, if you’re softening and filtering your water in your home already, your mileage might vary, and you might be able to stretch that out a bit.

The Barista Pro is in the middle of the Barista series lineup. The cheaper Barista Express ($699) doesn’t have the fast-heating ThermoJet system that powers the Bambino Plus and the Barista Pro, while the Barista Touch ($999) has more advanced programmability and a color touchscreen display

Best High-End Single Boiler Espresso Machine: ECM Casa V ($999; food52.com)

ECM Casa V
Jason Perlow/CNN Underscored
ECM Casa V

Key specs

  • Semi-automatic
  • Single boiler
  • Manometer
  • Analog controls
  • Digital controls
  • Warranty: Depending on reseller, 2 or 3 years

If the Gaggia Classic Pro is the veritable Fiat 124, and the Rancilio Silvia M is an Alfa Romeo Giulia, then the ECM Casa V is analogous to the legendary Mercedes-Benz W123  – a solid, reliable, German-engineered machine that’s not only fun to use, but is also a pleasure to work on. It also makes great coffee, of course. We love the sweet, crema-rich shots the machine can pull and the microfoam the milk frother can produce quickly.

The ECM Casa V ‘s controls are all analog, with push buttons for main power, shot pull, steam mode, and water mode. It has full steel construction and is extremely easy to open up, with a generous amount of space inside. At over $1000, you might expect the ECM Casa V to have a PID to maintain temperature, but it doesn’t, and based on our experience the machine is so well-designed and thermostabilized that it doesn’t need one. You also get a manometer to monitor pressure and better time your shots. If you’re a dedicated hobbyist trying to develop your technique, knowing the pressure can help you diagnose why your shots are flowing too fast or slow.

The ECM is more powerful and quick to start than the more basic single-boiler machines. The 1200W 14oz boiler gives it a 30-second warm-up, faster than the Gaggia Classic or the Ranciio Silvia M and even faster than many thermoblock/thermocoil machines. The internal reservoir is a sizable 3 liters as opposed to the 2 liter model used in the Silvia.

The Casa V’s low-tech, entirely electromechanical design means that it should be a dream to work on if you ever need to make repairs, such as replacing a vibratory pump or swapping a valve or  any other routine maintenance. For a machine built for a lifetime of use, the approach makes a lot of sense, and is part of why we like it over more feature-rich machines in this price range like the Ascaso Dream or Nuovo Simonelli Oscar II.

Best Dual-Boiler Espresso Machine: Rancilio Silvia Pro ($1700; wholelattelove.com)

Rancilio Silvia Pro
Jason Perlow/CNN Underscored
Rancilio Silvia Pro

Key specs

  • Semi-automatic
  • Dual boiler
  • PID temperature control
  • Analog controls
  • Manual shot timer with digital display
  • Warranty: 2 Years

At the upper end of the spectrum for consumer espresso machines you’ll find dual boiler machines, which dedicate one boiler for coffee and another for steam, giving you perfect temperature and plenty of pressure on demand for either task.

There was robust competition among the  systems we looked at – the Lelit Elizabeth, The Ascaso Duo, and the Breville Dual Boiler — but the Rancilio Silvia Pro, the dual boiler update of the well-regarded Silvia M, won out.

The Silvia Pro bears a strong physical resemblance to its sibling, with the same style of controls and general fit and finish, but adds a second dedicated steam boiler and vibratory pump along with PID control of both boilers and a shot timer.

Like its single boiler sibling, it’s easy to use and pulls exceptional shots with a rich crema if you have a tight powder grind. The dedicated and powerful steam boiler means you can have steam and hot water ready to go right after pulling your shots. If you’re going to be making several milk drinks, however, be sure to keep the steam boiler on (it can be turned off separately), as it can take about ten minutes to warm up.

The overall experience is like using a cafe-level system – and for all practical purposes, it performs like one as well, with the dedicated boilers giving you better crema and latte-art quality milk microfoam than any single-boiler machine.

One thing to note is that the Silvia Pro is a more basic machine than some of its dual-boiler competition. Although it has a manual shot clock with a digital display, it doesn’t have programmable shot timing or shot pre-infusion, features included on all of its direct competitors that we tested. It also lacks a manometer. These features, however, will all be added in the updated Rancilio Silvia Pro X, available later this year. However, we concluded that with a solidly built, high quality machine like this, these convenience features aren’t necessary to make a great cup of coffee.

Like its single boiler sibling, the Silvia Pro is easy to service – which we figured out when our evaluation model required some plumbing adjustment and we had to open it. Disassembly was simple using standard Phillips screwdrivers and the casing was simple to remove, exposing the innards where all of the parts are laid out for easy access. A machine that allows the end-user to perform their own routine repairs without requiring expensive bench technician labor is a huge plus, and that’s part of the reason this system came out on top.

Best Superautomatic Espresso Machine: Philips 3200 Series with LatteGo ($799.95; seattlecoffeegear.com)

Philips 3220
Jason Perlow/CNN Underscored
Philips 3220

Key specs

All superautomatic machines — which grind, dose, pull your shot and froth milk at the touch of a single button — are a compromise compared to their automatic cousins. Only the most expensive ones produce comparable shots or froth milk equally well. But for people who want freshly ground coffee in their espresso shots and latte drinks, and appreciate the instant gratification of a pod system such as a Keurig or Nespresso, a superautomatic is a solid choice.

The Philips 3220 with LatteGo had the best mix of features and performance at its price point. It’s more compact than the basic Gaggia and Jura superautomatics, and it pulls a reasonably decent shot of espresso with good crema and good shot temperature and flavor.

The ample water reservoir is easy to remove, and we liked the simple lighted push button controls that allow for an easy guided and personalized drink creation experience. The bean hopper is easy to load, although its capacity is not as high as others we looked at. The pre-programmed drink types (Espresso, Coffee, Americano, Macchiato, and Cappuccino) have easily adjustable settings (Strength, Water Volume and Milk Volume)  that let you customize each drink type before execution.

The “LatteGo” — a hot-pluggable milk frother/heater and jug attachment — produced better hot milk consistency than other superautomatic machines we tested. However, it is made of plastic, just like the entire machine. It’s also easy to overfill and will start leaking unless it is snapped correctly into its holder and attached correctly to the machine, while the spout needs constant cleaning. By comparison, the Jura D6 design (with the container piped into the machine on the side) is less prone to failure or mess, though the results weren’t as good to our taste.

As with all superautomatics, the coffee grind disposal hopper and drip tray must be cleaned regularly, but it’s easy to pull out, empty, wash under the sink, and slide again into action. The machine also turns itself off automatically after a preset period and can be quickly woken up again.

Everything you need to know about espresso machines:

The espresso machine,which brews highly concentrated coffee by forcing hot water under pressure through fine-ground beans,was developed in Italy around the turn of the 20th century. Initially aimed at increasing cafe speed and productivity, over the last 120 years smaller versions have become popular home appliances. A variety of technologies have been employed in miniaturizing the components needed to make this style of extracted coffee in order to make the drink accessible for home users.

Major components

Group head

Also referred to as the brew group, or the brew head, or simply “the group,” it’s where the actual brewing of coffee occurs. Hot water flows from the boiler (and through any other heating elements that may be used), through the group, and into the portafilter, containing the filter basket packed with tamped and finely grounded roasted coffee, which is locked into place under the group.

Group heads pick up coffee fines and oils over time and require periodic cleaning of accumulated oils and coffee grind particles, either by disassembly or by using a backflush plate/blank portafilter insert (supplied with most machines) and detergent, such as URNEX Cafiza.

Portafilters

This is the handle-mounted cuplike container with a spout into which the coffee is ground before being placed into the group. It consists of a circular holder for the filter basket, which contains the finely ground coffee and has tiny pinholes through which the brewed espresso shot flows into the dispensing spout. Portafilters (and filter baskets) come in different sizes and standards, such as the 58mm used on commercial equipment or in various 54mm and other manufacturer-specific sizes.

Tamper

The tamper is used to compress espresso grounds in the basket of the portafilter. The process of tamping allows for grounds to be packed evenly and densely to produce enough resistance to generate the right pressure for a quality espresso shot. Tampers can be either calibrated (for limiting compressive force applied to the coffee grinds) or uncalibrated (for users who prefer to work by feel) and they can be flat or convex according to barista preference.

With any machine that takes a standard 58 mm portafilter (or other popular sizes such as the 54 mm diameter used by Breville), you’ll eventually want to upgrade your tamper to something of better quality (such as the Espro or Decent, both calibrated). You’ll also probably want a leveling tool, a nude/bottomless portafilter for accommodating larger baskets, and also consider changing out the basket for a VST or similar professional laser-cut one, especially if you want more grams of coffee in your shot, such as we do, with an 18g or 22g basket.

Pump

The pump is the heart of the espresso machine; it moves water throughout its piped circulatory system, through the heating elements and exchange system and into the group head. Most consumer espresso machines come with a vibratory or “vibe” pump, which uses a piston attached to a magnet set inside a metal coil. All of the machines we evaluated in this list use vibratory pumps; more expensive systems (so called “prosumer” machines and professional models costing $2,500 and up), use quieter, larger, and more reliable rotary pumps.

In a vibratory pump, electrical current running through the coil causes the magnet to move the piston back and forth, pushing water through the machine at about sixty oscillations per second. A vibratory pump is a fairly inexpensive and standardized part (around $40) with about a 3 to 5-year lifespan depending on use. Along with valves and O-rings, the vibe pump is one of the most common components to eventually need replacement in an espresso machine.

If you plan on using your machine heavily  — making several espresso drinks daily —  you should factor in the cost and difficulty of eventually servicing your espresso machine. Many of the high-end and traditionally designed midrange machines we recommend are built to be serviced easily at home; if you aren’t confident in making this simple repair yourself a longer warranty may be more important to you. In the case of less expensive machines, replacement of a pump or other major component may be pricey enough — perhaps half of the replacement cost — you’ll just want to replace the machine altogether.

Thermoblocks and Thermocoils

A thermoblock is a solid block of metal with embedded electrical elements that heat water to coffee brewing temperature (195F+) as it passes through a narrow passage. They function a bit like a tankless water heater, and they are at the core of any lower-end espresso machine. They can be manufactured from different materials such as brass or aluminum and versions of varying build quality and performance are available. A thermocoil works similarly, heating water as it passes through a metal tube surrounded by a coiled heating element.

The main advantage of using a thermoblock or a thermocoil over a boiler in an espresso machine is that they can heat up very quickly. Some thermoblock-based machines are ready to pull shots in just a couple of minutes after being turned on, while many traditional boiler designs take 15 minutes or more to come up to optimal temperature.

Thermoblocks and thermocoils can also produce consistent water temperature, consistent dry steam, permit highly compact espresso machine designs, are more energy-efficient and are less expensive. Machines with thermoblocks or thermocoils start at about $100 and can go up to about $1200 depending on performance and other technologies used. Most of the Brevilles, except the Dual Boiler and their upper-end Oracle machines, are thermocoil-based systems.

Boiler

An insulated metal vessel, typically made of copper, stainless steel, brass, or aluminum, the boiler uses a heating element to bring water to espresso brewing temperatures (195° F min and 205° F max) or milk-steaming temperatures (250° F or more) and store it for use. Espresso machines with a single boiler, heat exchanger, and steam valve start at about $500, whereas systems that use dedicated boilers for steam and coffee start at around $1700, with the sky being the limit at the top-end ($5000+).

A single boiler system (that doesn’t use a heat exchange design) requires changing from shot temperature to steam temperature, which could take as long as 10 minutes. So you need to pull all your shots, then steam all your milk — once you get up to steam temperature you have to wait for the boiler to cool back down to brew temperature. If you don’t, you’ll end up with burnt, bad-tasting shots.

In a machine with a heat exchanger, the boiler stays at the higher milk steamer temperature so the machine is always ready for frothing, while cool water from the reservoir is heated indirectly by a coiled tube running through or surrounding the steam boiler on its way to the group head for brewing. When this type of machine has been idle for more than a few minutes, an initial “group head flush” should be performed to purge the 2 to 4 ounces of extra hot water that is too hot for pulling good shots.

In a dual boiler machine, one boiler is kept at coffee brewing temperature while a second steam boiler keeps water at the higher milk steaming temperature, meaning your machine is instantly ready to steam – important if you have a large household and make several drinks at a time, or if you are entertaining. With a dual boiler, you can pull shots and steam (or vice versa) right away, if you really want to.

As part of regular maintenance, espresso machines with boilers require periodic descaling, which is the removal of minerals from the interior walls of the boiler. This is done by running descaling solution (or dissolved tablets) through the water reservoir and boiler.

Steam Wand and Steam Valve

A small metal pipe about five centimeters or longer, the wand typically sticks out from the side of the group head or from a separate valve head, and is capped with a nozzle with one or more openings for steam dispersion. Many designs exist, with some oriented towards latte art, others meant for ease of use, and others for durability.

This steam valve is internally connected to either the main boiler, steam boiler, or the thermoblock (depending on the machine layout) via piping and directs steam to froth milk for drinks such as latte and cappuccino.

Manometer

This is the instrument, typically with an analog dial, used to measure and indicate pressure, which lets you dial in your shot more precisely. These are typically found on more expensive models that cost $1000 and up.

9 or 10 bar (1 bar is roughly equivalent to atmospheric pressure) is considered an optimal pressure reading for extracting the espresso coffee. A significantly lower reading (4-6 bar) indicates that the grind may be too coarse, and a higher reading (12-16 bar) means that the grind may be too fine, thus indicating a need to adjust your grind to compensate or fine-tune your tamping technique.

PID controller

The “Proportional-integral-derivative” or PID is the microprocessor-controlled brain of a higher-end espresso machine. It regulates and stabilizes boiler or thermoblock temperature more accurately than the simple electromechanical thermostatic control (also known as a pressurestat) used on older and less expensive systems. A PID equipped machine can give you more consistent shots since the water temperature can affect the taste of the extracted coffee, and cut down on shot-to-shot temperature recovery time, letting you make more drinks more quickly.

Types of espresso machines

Automatic and semi-automatic

An automatic (also simply “auto”) espresso machine is one where coffee is ground into espresso powder in the portafilter, tamped and locked into place under the group head. Then a shot is “pulled” (even though most machines don’t use levers these days, we still use the term) or extracted with either a toggle switch, a button or lever.

“Automatic” machines (like our compact recommendation, the Breville Bambino Plus) only require you to press a single button and use a timer or digital control for shot length.

“Semi-automatic” machines (such as the Gaggia Classic Pro, our recommendation for an entry-level hobbyist) require the user to start and stop the extraction process manually.

Milk frothing is handled as a separate process with the steam valve and wand, and is done by either switching the machine into a steam mode or using a dedicated steam boiler.

Modern espresso machines are referred to as “automatic” in contrast to the older style of “manual” lever-operated espresso machines. In a lever machine the barista physically pulls the shot with a large lever attached to a piston pump — there’s no electric pump involved. It may not come as a surprise that lever machines have largely fallen out of favor since the 1940s. They do still have a small, dedicated cult following today, and models such as those from La Pavoni are still available.

Modern automatic machines incorporate many convenience features depending on price point, including integrated manometers, wake-up, standby modes, and PID controllers with shot pre-infusion and shot timing. Some classic machines of this type — like the Gaggia Classic Pro and Rancilio Silvia M V6 — can easily be modified to add more functionality, with 3rd-party PID kits, such as the Auber Instruments. Some retailers, such as Seattle Coffee Gear, also sell them pre-modified.

Superautomatic

A superautomatic machine is one in which the machine handles every aspect of the coffee preparation and extraction process, including grinding, tamping, shot pulling, as well as milk steaming and frothing. These systems typically have pre-programmed modes for the type of drink (espresso, americano, latte, macchiato) and program customizations for shot length, shot temperature, milk volume, and milk temperature. Superautomatic machines start at about $800, and the sky’s the limit on the upper-end, which can produce cafe-quality drinks–think$5000+.

All of the superautomatics (Philips, Jura, Gaggia) we looked at require the use of proprietary water filter packs that must be replaced every few months.

Regarding espresso drink quality, the entry-level superautomatic machines compromise coffee extraction quality and milk frothing texture for the sake of convenience. Don’t get us wrong – you’ll get a better morning coffee from one of these than you will from a Keurig machine. However, you won’t be getting cafe-quality espresso drinks or even automatic-level performance unless you spend thousands of dollars. The $800 price point is where you start to see a standard set of features shared by these machines, including an automatically loaded grinder with bean hopper, an automated milk frother, a dispenser, and a pre-programmed, customizable drink selection.

Where to find an espresso machine

Unless indicated and supplied by a manufacturer directly, we sourced these machines from online specialty retailers like Whole Latte Love, Seattle Coffee Gear, Espresso Parts, or Amazon. In many cases, these retailers operate as primary distributors of these products.

Several of these shops have extensive educational materials available on their sites; they are also first-line contacts for customer service issues related to the equipment, so if we had issues with them, we went to them directly.

How we tested

We dedicated an area of our home kitchen to test these systems, with an isolated circuit normally used for a high-end cafe-quality espresso machine, with whole-home water softening and a triple-stage under sink water filtration system.

Although some of these machines allow for pre-ground coffee, either with a specialized pressurized portafilter basket or a separate pre-ground hopper (as in the case of the superautomatics), for consistency and quality of results, we only chose to use fresh ground, whole bean coffee. For our tests, we purchased bags of Mayorga Organics Cafe Cubano (Dark Roast) and Mayan Blend (Medium Roast) both available at COSTCO, both of which are inexpensive, high-quality whole bean coffee blends that perform well and extract consistently, with good crema and flavor, with the variety of machines we used.

The grinder used was a Mazzer Major, a commercial quality unit, set to a fine powder setting (near level 1) and adjusted/dialed in within millimeters per machine as needed until proper extraction was achieved. For consumer use, we recommend the Baratza Virtuoso+ conical grinder recommended in our CNN Underscored roundup.

For non-standard portafilter sizes, we used the accessories provided with each machine for filter baskets, portafilter, and tamping. On 58mm portafilters, we used a combination of OEM-supplied filter baskets and 18g (Double shot) precision laser-cut VST baskets for professional barista use to observe consistent results across machines with the tester’s tamping technique. In addition to a variety of leveling tools, we used Espro Calibrated, and the Decent V4 self-leveling tampers on 58mm portafilters in addition to OEM-supplied.

All machines were unpacked and installed per manufacturer instructions, including initial water priming, water hardness testing, and installation of water filter packs if required.

We focused on the following criteria when testing each model:

Performance

  • Quality of coffee extraction: We wanted to see a good production of crema and an even, strong extraction of the coffee, with a consistent flow. In addition to sweet-tasting, the resulting espresso should also be nice and hot.
  • Quality of milk froth: Milk steamer should be able to produce silky, hot steamed milk for use in latte or cappuccino. It got bonus points if it was capable of producing a microfoam.
  • Heat-up time: How long it took to go from initial power-on to pull the first shot, or how long it took to switch between espresso shot mode and steam mode.
  • Superautomatic performance: How long it took between pushing the button, milk steaming, dispensing and pouring the milk, grinding, tamping, brewing, extracting the shot into the cup, and resetting for the next drink.

Build and design

  • Industrial design and build quality: What kind of materials were the machine and its accessories (such as the portafilter and supplied tamper) made of, such as plastic or metal?
  • Standardization: Did it use standardized 58mm or 54mm portafilters for accessories (baskets, tampers, levellers), or did it use a proprietary design?
  • Convenience features: Did it incorporate any enabling technology or design elements that allowed it to produce better coffee or enhance the experience in any way?
  • Ease of use: How easy was it to grind coffee or tamp and load the shot or use the steam function? If superautomatic, how easy was it to use the controls?

Care

  • Ease of cleanup: How easy was it to clean or reset between uses? How easy was the descaling process?
  • Maintenance and repairability: How easily could this machine be opened up for a routine repair or parts replacement/modification in a post-warranty scenario? This was especially important in considering the high-end machines; espresso machines require regular maintenance when in heavy use, and enthusiasts generally like to take care of these tasks at home rather than ship machines to a vendor for servicing.
  • Warranty: What were the terms of the manufacturer warranty, and what were the expected repair costs in post-warranty scenarios (such as for a refurb machine swap).
  • Customer Service: Was it easy to contact the company for questions or concerns?

Other espresso machines we tested

Entry-level automatic

Capresso EC ($123.09; wayfair.com)

Key specs

The affordable Capresso EC is a compact machine for tight kitchens, and as we found with the very similar Delonghi Stilosa, if you can manage to grind your coffee to a consistent powder level, you will be rewarded with a nicely extracted espresso with good crema. It’s got simple lighted controls, including a simple master knob for steam mode and shot pull mode, with an easy-to-remove and clean drip tray. We were impressed with the decent volume reservoir for the tiny size of the machine.

The integrated milk frother with an adjustable wand makes serviceable froth that will satisfy all but the most serious cafe-style drink cravings.

Delonghi Dedica EC680M ($299.95; williams-sonoma.com)

Key specs

If you don’t want to shell out nearly $500 for the Bambino Plus, but still want automatic features in an affordable machine, the Dedica is a good choice.

We felt that the shots we pulled with the Dedica were comparable to the Bambino Plus, and the machine’s portafilter and baskets are of similar design and quality. The tamper, however, is junkier than Breville’s, so we suggest replacing it with a third-party option (these are available in Delonghi’s proprietary 51 mm size).

Shot time is programmable, but not shot temperature. The frother performed similarly to Breville’s, though the machine’s build quality was a bit more plasticky overall, which is why we ranked it lower. As with the Bambino Plus, the Delonghi requires a grinder with fine powder capability to get good results, and you should pull out and clean the drip tray often because it can overflow easily.

Solis Barista Perfetta ($529; amazon.com)

Key specs

  • Automatic
  • Single boiler
  • Manometer
  • Analog control
  • Warranty: 1 Year

We had hoped this machine would lead the category due to its impressive build quality. Engineered in Switzerland, the company is better known for its grinders than its espresso machines. On paper, there’s a ton to like about it — and it gets rave reviews from its distributors and other publications — but we were unable to get this machine to extract reliably and consistently, shot to shot, during the test period, and eventually returned the machine. Should we figure out the issue with the manufacturer we will update this review in the future.

The proprietary, high-quality pressurized portafilter can use pressurized and unpressurized baskets to accommodate pre-ground coffee, fresh ground, or ESE pods. The tamper is heavy and well-built, and the best we’ve seen included with a machine at this price. However, no matter which basket we used and what grind settings we attempted to dial in on our $1600 Mazzer, we couldn’t get the correct pressure. As indicated by its built-in manometer, we either flowed too fast or were overpressurized and didn’t flow fast enough. We sent dozens of shots through the Perfetta to try to get it to work within specifications.

Single Boiler

Rancilo Silvia M V6 ($830; wholelattelove.com)

Key specs

  • Semi-automatic
  • Single boiler
  • Analog control
  • Warranty: 1 Year

It’s tough to choose between the Gaggia Classic and the Rancilio Silvia. Both are of Italian manufacture, have 58mm portafilters, saturated-style group heads, and accommodate standard tampers and baskets. However, the Rancilio one is somewhat more standardized in its group head locking teeth configuration. Both have nearly identical reservoir capacities, at about 2L.

The Rancilio is very similar in terms of controls and operation to the Gaggia. It has four black plastic, lighted rocker switches instead of 3, as well as on/off, steam mode, brew/pump, and the addition of a hot water dispenser mode. That’s it. As with the Gaggia Classic, the Silvia uses a steam valve adjusted with an open and close knob.

Because of the larger, internally heated 12oz, 952W brass boiler, the Rancilio Silvia M V6 has a significantly more powerful steam function than the Gaggia Classic. You won’t need to open up the valve anywhere near all the way to make your 5 or 10 ounces of latte milk for your one or two drinks in the morning. The Silvia has a commercial-style wand, whereas the Gaggia’s wand is shorter and not as flexible. I was a Rancilio Silvia user for many years, having modified one with a PID myself.

Both machines are workhorses that will last a long time, and you can’t really go wrong with either. They perform exquisitely, making high-quality espresso shots with excellent crema provided you pair them with a conical burr grinder that can produce fine powder levels of ground coffee. Overall, the Rancilio is a more powerful machine than the Gaggia, but it also costs more than $300 more.

Lelit Anna ($699; totalespresso.com)

Key specs

  • Automatic
  • Single boiler
  • Manometer
  • PID temperature control
  • Digital controls
  • Warranty: 1 Year

Although this well-constructed, stainless steel compact machine competes fiercely against the Rancilio Silvia M at a lower price point, sporting a built-in manometer and PID, it uses a non-standard Lelit-designed 57mm portafilter rather than the standard 58mm. The small 250ml (8.5oz) boiler using a 1000W heating element also gives it a short warm-up time for both shot pull and steam modes.

However, we had trouble dialing in the grind on this particular machine – the Lelit Anna could not accommodate a fine powder that we were using on the other systems, as it would jam the portafilter. Nor could we use standard calibrated tampers (you’ll probably have better luck weighing your shots). Sadly, it didn’t produce the quality of crema we expected from a machine of this type. For a single boiler, PID-controlled, manometer-equipped Lelit, we’d recommend the Victoria instead, the baby sister of the double boiler Elizabeth, at around $1100 – which we did not have a chance to evaluate, but is mechanically similar to the upper-end model.

High-end

Nuovo Simonelli Oscar II (starting at $1395; seattlecoffeegear.com)

Key specs

  • Automatic
  • Single boiler with heat exchange
  • PID temperature control
  • Digital controls
  • Ready for plumbed-in installation
  • Warranty: 1 Year

We greatly looked forward to reviewing this unit because of the cafe heritage that Nuovo Simonelli has with its commercial equipment and expected something closer to a commercial machine than a consumer one. We also appreciated the forward-thinking, energy-conserving heat exchange design, which indirectly allows the steam boiler to heat the brew group, thus removing the need for a secondary boiler and making the machine less expensive. We would like to see this design philosophy used more often in prosumer-level systems from other manufacturers.

We had a chance to open this machine up, though it wasn’t by choice. When it was delivered to us, we discovered that the plumbing line cap for the external water supply (as this is designed for small volume cafe operation) was not installed inside the machine during the initial priming procedure. Protip: make sure your machine isn’t configured for plumbed-in operation before you prime it.

After examining the internals, it does appear the Oscar II is very well put together, but there was more plastic on the machine than we anticipated. This is especially true if you compare it with a much less expensive machine like the Rancilio Silvia M V6 or the ECM Casa V. We also didn’t like the plastic steam lever, though the steam boiler is powerful and makes high-quality microfoam. However, we felt its operation was better suited to a cafe with a higher volume than a home espresso setup. You’ll want to use a much larger milk-steaming carafe than a single portion for a 5oz latte, or you’ll find it will overflow in about 8 seconds.

The machine does produce nice shots once you’ve given the system time to fully power on. It took us about 45 minutes to get the brew group nice and hot and an initial shot water purge. After dialing it in a little bit coarser from the ultra-fine powder grind, we got it to pull nice, hot shots (which are timed using pre-programmed buttons for single and double) with excellent crema. The machine does not have a manometer to judge pressure, and there’s no PID or electronic display. However, a push-button sequence adjusts the shot timing.

If you have a small restaurant, this would be a good choice, and it’s not hard to open it up and get to essential parts and make repairs. But it’s overspec’d for domestic use, there are other machines on our list I would rather use at home than this one, such as the Ascaso Dream, the Lelit Victoria, the Silvia M V6, and the ECM Casa V.

Ascaso Dream PID ($1250; seattlecoffeegear.com)

Key specs

  • Automatic
  • Single thermoblock
  • PID temperature control
  • Digital controls

There were many things we liked about this machine, not just in principle but also in execution. Manufactured in Barcelona, Spain, the Ascaso Dream PID employs a high-end thermoblock; thus it has more in common with systems like the Breville Bambino Plus and the Solis Perfetta than a traditional single boiler system. Like the Bambino Plus it is also PID-controlled, with programmable pre-infusion and shot timing, but it is a larger machine, and can use standard 58mm portafilters and accessories. If you’re looking for something with Bambino-like convenience but more of a classic European machine build, the Ascaso is worth a look.

We were particularly impressed with the machine’s compact, retro-1960s design, utilizing steel toggle switches for power, steam mode, and shot control, and the combination of wood (on the steam valve control and portafilter handle) and metal finishes. The portafilter accessory is well built as the tamper is entirely made of metal. The machine resembles a baby KitchenAid mixer in overall aesthetic.

From an external build quality and industrial design perspective, the yellow “tweety bird” with a cafe-style flexible steam wand that we evaluated looked great. It also pulled excellent shots and, due to the thermoblock, came up quickly to steam mode (within 2 or 3 minutes from wakeup). While not especially powerful, the steam wand made a great silky microfoam, provided you give the thermoblock additional time to heat the water (it takes about a minute for it to come up to steam temperature and then pump it out the frother nozzle). We didn’t particularly like adjusting the PID on this system as it only has two buttons, and you need to be lightning-quick to get into the menu system and make changes.

We do like this machine, but would expect that if maintenance had to be performed, given the extensive programmability and digital controls you’d want it outsourced unless you were especially mechanically and electrically inclined. At five years, however, the warranty is one of the longest we’ve seen on a consumer machine, which is reassuring if you are considering a purchase.

Ascaso Steel Duo ($1625; seattlecoffeegear.com)

Key specs

  • Automatic
  • Dual thermoblock
  • PID temperature controls
  • Digital controls
  • Warranty: 5 Years

We also got to look at the dual-thermoblock version of Ascaso’s more sedately styled Steel series, the $1625 “Duo,” which shares most of its parts and electronic controls with the Dream series. Externally it looks different, with squared-off, slanted, sharp lines. It reminds us of something that might be used at the cafe in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Even though it has two thermoblocks, it’s not much bigger than its smaller, more rounded-off cousin. The Duo comes with a heavy metal (wood-accented) portafilter and a heavy metal tamper.

Because of the dual thermoblock design, this version gives you instant heat on the milk frother, so there’s no waiting between shots and milk frothing duty if you are making multiple milk drinks. As with the smaller Dream, the PID menu is difficult to use, but once it is set up for desired temp, pre-infusion, and shot timing, there’s little need to adjust it again.

We had the opportunity to open the Duo up due to some issues with it being shaken up during shipping that loosened some electronic connectors. We found a tight rat’s nest of wiring, electronics, and plumbing as you would expect from a machine with digital programmability.

As with the Dream, the Duo is an excellent machine, with plenty of technology and innovation in it, but we would expect that if you need to get it fixed, you’d want it outsourced unless you are very confident with opening things up and dealing with electrical and plumbing spaghetti.

At this price level, we were more inclined towards machines with simpler designs that are simpler for users to repair on their own; however if you’re not the type of person who’s likely to disassemble an espresso machine to replace gaskets or worn out pump in any case, the Ascaso is worth considering and as with the Dream, it has a five-year warranty, which should provide a good amount of peace of mind.

Dual Boiler Espresso Machines

Lelit Elizabeth ($1699; clivecoffee.com)

Key specs

  • Automatic
  • Dual Boiler
  • PID temperature control
  • Digital controls
  • Warranty: 2 Years

Although the Rancilio Silvia Pro was our favorite dual boiler espresso machine, the Lelit Elizabeth has a lot to offer with its cafe-level feature set, and we liked it so much in testing we used it as our daily driver for more than a week.

This steel machine is well-constructed and includes an analog manometer, a PID with dual boiler control and preinfusion and shot timing. On paper, it’s a superior system (though the forthcoming Silvia Pro X should more closely match the Elizabeth’s functionality). This is the machine for you if you want cafe-quality construction and results, but prefer an automatic that does more of the work for you so you can focus on the grind and tamp.

We loved the fit and finish of the Elizabeth, from the pushbuttons to the brightly lit LCD on the PID, which we found very easy to program. Internally, It also looks to be easy to service, like the Rancilio Silvia — refreshing for such a complex machine. We also loved the standard 58mm saturated group head and appreciated the unique forward-facing spouts of the stainless Lelit portafilter. As with other machines of its type, it requires a tight powder grind, which in our testing produced shots with rich crema, and the powerful dedicated steam boiler was always ready and provided microfoam for making cafe-quality latte drinks.

So why didn’t it beat the Silvia Pro? It turns out the Lelit Elizabeth (and the single-boiler Lelit Victoria) has an Achilles heel: the steam valve can easily be jammed open in normal use, emptying the entire steam boiler in a Vesuvius-like eruption. If this happens, you need to immediately shove a milk carafe under the steam wand to catch the resulting superheated water as it empties the steam boiler. When we encountered this problem, it was utterly terrifying. To fix it, you have to remove the cheap plastic steam valve knob (which can be replaced by a third-party knob; we used Clive Coffee part designed for ECM machines) and then, using a wrench, twist the valve rod back into the fully closed position.

We don’t think this is necessarily a dealbreaker, and the Elizabeth is still worth considering, but we don’t think a machine at this price with so many automatic conveniences should require that you fit your own steam knob to avoid this issue. If the machine’s strengths appeal to you, just be aware before you purchase.

Breville Dual Boiler ($1599.95; seattlecoffeegear.com)

Key specs

  • Automatic
  • Dual Boiler
  • PID temperature control
  • Digital controls
  • LCD display
  • Warranty: 2 Years

The Breville Dual Boiler is a gorgeous, modern-looking machine that would be the pride of any kitchen. Plus, it is utterly loaded with technology. Unlike the machines in its Barista line, this system uses a standard 58mm portafilter and accessories. A PID controller manages and stabilizes the temperature of the main and steam boiler, and all the controls are accessed via an easy-to-read high-contrast black-and-white LCD screen.

Since it can wake up quickly from a low-power standby mode, you can simply leave it powered up and (so long as you fill the reservoir) the machine is ready to pull shots and steam milk every morning. The shot buttons allow for timed dosing control, which can be adjusted in the menu system, and we got precise and repeatable extraction every single time. We thought the coffee this system could extract was exceptional, matching any of the top systems on this list.

Why didn’t it hit the top of our list? Mainly its technical complexity, and that it felt more like a consumer appliance than professional-grade barista equipment. While we have heard of some enthusiasts being able to perform some simple repairs on the machine, overall, this is one where most customers will elect to send it back to the company for servicing or refurbish when a part breaks. Breville’s policy is to typically charge about ⅓ of the system’s cost, which covers two-way shipping, in exchange for a refurbished unit for an out-of-warranty repair, which we think is entirely reasonable.

Superautomatic Espresso Machines

Jura D6 ($999; wholelattelove.com)

Key specs

  • Superautomatic
  • Programmable
  • Wi-Fi/app enabled
  • Waranty: 2 Years or 6000 brews

We really liked the Jura D6’s design and build best of all the superautomatic machines we tested, and vastly preferred the way the Jura’s D6’s sidecar works with the piped-in feed line (which needs to be cleaned regularly) over the hot-plug container the Philips 3220 uses. Jura’s dial-based menu and shot customization system was harder to use than the controls on the Philips as well. The Philips had the edge on milk froth temperature and quality as well.

This is a good-quality machine, though, and if you do buy one, we suggest replacing the standard glass sidecar with the $75 stainless steel milk container instead. The D6 is also Wi-Fi enabled, and if you buy its J.O.E. accessory module you can program drinks and control the machine remotely via a smartphone app.

Jura ENA 4 ($899; wholelattelove.com)

Key specs

  • Superautomatic
  • Programmable
  • Espresso Only (no milk frothed )
  • Warranty: 2 Years or 6000 brews

If you don’t like milk drinks and prefer only to drink espresso shots or pull Americanos, we liked the relative simplicity of the Jura ENA 4, the D6’s smaller sibling, which does not have a milk steamer/frother. It pulls great shots with nice crema and is a great purchase if this is literally all you want to do.

The controls are much simpler, with only four buttons underneath the LED display for single shot, double shot, coffee strength, and programming mode to adjust shot time, strength and temperature. Grind settings are accomplished with a manual dial on the top of the machine circling the bean hopper.

Gaggia Magenta Prestige ($899; wholelattelove.com)

Key specs

  • Superautomatic
  • Programmable
  • Warranty: 1 Year

The Magenta Prestige is similar in design to the Philips 3220, and had the best milk frother sidecar design. In our opinion, it also produced the best milk consistency of all the superautomatics. We didn’t like the overall user experience as much, however. The milk jug’s locking mechanism was finicky to use, we had problems getting consistent water volume and coffee strength from our shots, programming settings was clunky, and it had slow shot to shot performance compared with the other machines.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing