What to Look for When Buying an Espresso Machine

The right espresso machine will provide many enjoyable moments at your coffee bar, and it’ll make many delicious drinks. You’ll want a machine that’s well-suited for your needs and preferences, though, and there are many different factors and types of espresso machines to consider. Here’s what to look for when buying an espresso machine.

Practical Requirements of Your Setup

The first issues to consider are the practicalities of your coffee space. These include issues such as space, power, water and budget (among others).

Size of the Espresso Machine

Determine what space you will devote to coffee, and calculate the largest size espresso machine that will fit in this space. Pay most attention to what footprint your chosen espresso machine can have (length and width), for most kitchens, coffee carts and buffets can accommodate standard height espresso machines.

Don’t just consider the size of the machine itself, but also take into account the room you’ll need to grind, tamp and pour beverages. You should have at least some room near your machine — and room for a grinder and smallwares.

Your espresso machine’s size is especially important if you have a small kitchen. Should you need a small machine, models such as the Rocket Appartamento (277 mm x 425 mm /10.9 in. x 16.7 in.) and De’Longhi EC680M (149 mm x 330 mm / 5.9 in. x 13 in.) take up minimal counter space. The Rossa HC Hand Espresso is no larger than a pepper grinder.

If your espresso maker will be used for camping, consider not only how much room it will take up in your luggage but also its weight. The Rossa TR Aire Espresso is heavy but small. The Wacaco Minipresso is light and extremely small.

Power the Espresso Machine is Wired For

Espresso machines are wired for either 110 or 220 volts. A machine’s wiring depends on where it’s used:

  • Home espresso makers used in the United States and Canada are usually 110 volts
  • Commercial espresso makers in the United States and Canada are usually 220 volts
  • Home and commercial espresso makers in Europe are usually 220 volts
  • Home and commercial espresso makers in Australia are usually 220 volts

(Voltages can vary by a minor amount, such as 10 volts.)

Voltage most often is an issue if you’re not purchasing an espresso machine that’s made in your home country. Australians who purchase machines made in the United States may have to address voltage incompatibility issues. European manufacturers frequently make 110-volt models for use in North America, and 220-volt models for use in Europe. U.S. and Canadian residents should check the voltage of a machine if purchasing one from Europe.

For example, the Olympia Cremina (Swiss made) and La Pavoni Europiccola (Italian made) are two classic machines that have long come in 110 and 220 voltages. Because both voltages are widely available and many of these machines are available used, purchasers must carefully check the voltage of a machine they want to buy.

If your favorite espresso machine isn’t available in the correct voltage, you can use a voltage converter or rewire the machine/an outlet. This adds to the complexity of your setup and can significantly increase cost, however.

Should you be purchasing an espresso maker for camping, look for a model that doesn’t require any external electricity source. The Uniterra Nomad, and Wacaco Nanopresso are a few examples.

Water Source for the Boiler

The boiler is what holds and heats water within the espresso machine. Although there are more detailed features to consider, a basic necessity is that your machine’s boiler is compatible with your water source.

Most home espresso machines have boilers that are manually filled, by pouring water into them, while commercial machines are connected to a water supply line.

Manually filled machines work just as well as ones that get connected to a water supply, and most home baristas have no need for a connected machine. If you do want a commercial machine that has a water intake, make sure you are prepared to install a supply line.

Even the majority of high-end home espresso machines have self-contained boilers that get filled manually, but there are a few exceptions. The La Marzocco Linea Mini and Lelit Bianca are both examples of makers that get filled manually. One of the rare exceptions that has an intake is the Rocket R58.

Size of the Group Head

The sizes of group heads generally range from 49 to 58 millimeters. The 58mm size is becoming standard for commercial espresso machines, but home espresso machines are more likely to vary. (A few new home machines are outside of this range.)

You don’t have to worry about group head size if you’re purchasing a first espresso machine, and don’t yet have any accessories.

If you’re purchasing a second (or third) espresso machine, however, look for a model with the same size group head. A model that has the same size as your current machine will be compatible with any portafilters and grounds baskets that you already have. You won’t need to spend extra money just on replacing accessories.

A few examples of home espresso machines with different group head sizes are the Olympia Cremina (49mm), La Spaziale S1 (53mm) and Profitec Pro 300 Dual Boiler (58mm).

Your Budget

You should be able to find an espresso machine regardless of your budget, but careful thought should be given to how your available funds are spent.

An espresso grinder is almost as important as an espresso machine, and you will ultimately want both. Determine how you will acquire a quality grinder and a quality machine. There are a few ways you might go about this.

First, you can simply purchase an automatic or superautomatic machine, which has a built-in grinder. Your entire budget can go toward a machine/grinder combination.

Second, you can split available current funds between an espresso machine and an espresso grinder, budgeting about ¼ for the grinder and ¾ for the machine. This ration should be enough to get a grinder and a machine of similar quality.

Third, you can buy an espresso machine now and an espresso grinder later. Putting all of your currently available funds toward a machine will allow you to purchase the best machine that’s within your budget. Then, purchase the best grinder you can afford once you save up a sufficient amount.

You’ll need a way to grind beans in the meantime with this option, but any cafe that sells coffee can grind for espresso. Your espresso quality will suffer a little temporarily, as a cafe’s general grinder won’t be as consistent as an espresso-specific one. You’ll be able to have a better setup in the long run by purchasing one piece at a time, though.

How Much Should I Spend on an Espresso Machine?

Prices for espresso machines range from $100 to well over $1,000.

A look at just some De’Longhi machines shows the diverse price points: EC155 (~$100), EC680M ($~300), ESAM330 Magnifica (~$700), EC9665M La Specialista Maestro (~1,300) and ECAM37095TI Dinamica Plus ($~1,500).

Some other companies’ machines show how high prices can get. The Lelit Bianca (~$3,000), La Marzocco Linea Mini (~$6,000) and Slayer 1G (~$10,000) are still primarily designed for non-commercial settings.

At the other end of the price range, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a true espresso machine for less than $100. Machines in the $50-$60 price range claim to make espresso, but most are steam-driven and brew what’d be more accurately called strong, espresso-like coffee (see Pressure). The same holds true for stovetop machines that can be had for as little as $20.

Manual/Lever Machines Offer Value

If you want the highest quality machine at the lowest price, consider a fully manual/lever espresso machine that’s used. Because these machines have few parts other than basic mechanical ones (e.g. valves, lever, piston), they’re priced much lower than automatic machines of the same caliber. Manual/lever machines also can last for generations because their design is so simple.

Functioning La Pavoni lever machines regularly sell for $400 – $800 on Ebay, and Olympia Cremina machines tend to go for $900 – $1,800. Both companies’ machines hold their own — and can outperform — automatics that cost many times more. (The Olympia Cremina is especially well respected for its durability and quality.)

Of course, you must be willing to devote the time required to manually pull shots if you choose this route.

You can also get similarly excellent value by purchasing a manual espresso grinder, although grinding by hand is even more laborious than pulling espresso.

Design Suitable for Your Use

Within what practically works for your setup, how you expect to use an espresso machine is the next stage of factors to consider. The level of effort and the number of beverages you want are a couple of key ones.

Level of Involvement Required

Espresso machines offer experiences that range from fully hands-on to completely hands-off. What level of involvement you want determines what category of machine you should look at:

  • Manual/Lever Espresso Makers: An entirely hands-on experience, where you prepare the grounds, steam the milk and actually pull the shot. You assemble the beverage, of course. Example: La Pavoni Europiccola.
  • Semi Automatic Espresso Makers: Mostly hands-on, where you prepare the grounds, steam the milk and control water flow (not pressure). You assemble the beverage Example: Gaggia Classic Pro. (Some manufacturers advertise semi automatic machines as manual.) See our comparison of the Gaggia Classic Pro with the popular Brevilla Barista Express.
  • Automatic Espresso Makers: Mostly hands-off, where the machine takes care of all aspects of preparing and pulling espresso. You may steam milk, or the machine might have an automatic frother. You pour the beverage. Example: De’Longhi ESAM4200 Magnifica.
  • Super Automatic Espresso Makers: Entirely hands-off, except for pushing a button. The machine prepares the grounds, pulls the shot, froths the milk and composes the beverage. Example: Gaggia Cadorna Prestige.

What is the Easiest Espresso Machine to Use?

Super automatics may be easier to use than even ordering at your local cafe is. These machines will assemble an entire beverage, and consistently make them the same way. All you must do is ensure there are beans and milk, and select your preferred beverage.

Number of Beverages

Home espresso machines are limited in how many beverages they can make in a row. Their boilers eventually have to be refilled, and pressure must rebuild between beverages.

Whether a home espresso machine has heat exchange or double boiler impacts (see Helpful Features) how many beverages it can make back-to-back. So does the size of the boiler/water tank.

Few home espresso machines hold more than 1.5 liters of water, and many are more in the 0.5 – 1 (~16 – 32 ounces) liter range. At 1 liter of water capacity, a machine could make approximately 4 to 6 cappuccinos before needing to be refilled, depending on how much water is used for brewing and steaming.

A boiler that’s below 0.5 liters won’t provide sufficient temperature stability, nor will it brew many beverages.

Of course, a high-end machine that connects to a water supply doesn’t have these issues. Such machines are much more expensive, however.

The extra-large Breville BES870XL Barista Express is an outlier with a water capacity of around 2 liters. The De’Longhi EC680M packs a more normal 1 liter into its compact size.

Smartphone Operating System

If you’re purchasing an automatic or super automatic espresso machine, make sure any software that the machine uses is compatible with your smartphone. Some semi-automatic machines are connecting over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, too.

You’ll need to connect your phone (or other device) in order to adjust the settings on a software-enabled espresso machine. These settings might be water temperature, brew pressure or beverage composition, depending on the machine.

The De’Longhi Nespresso Expert Original supports iOS and Android phones. The Iruntek Automatic Espresso & Coffee Machine only works with Android devices. An increasing number of other smart espresso machines supporting either or both operating systems are coming onto the market.

Overall Aesthetic

Some espresso makers are more than machines that brew good coffee, but they also are works of art. Consider the steampunk La Pavoni Esperto Edotto, vintage Ascaso Dream PID and minimalistic Strietman CT2.

Looks matter more to some people than others. If you want a machine that’s as artistic as it is functional, make sure the aesthetic matches your decor. Thankfully, there is no shortage of espresso machine designs.

Essential Features

A few essential features will ensure that your espresso machine indeed brews good espresso, and can make the various beverages you and others may want.

Adequate Pressure: What Do Bars Mean in an Espresso Maker?

Espresso machines generate various amounts of pressure, depending on their mechanical design. The amount of pressure that’s generated is measured in bars.

The bar is a metric unit of measuring pressure, and most people are familiar with it through weather. The barometric pressure is a measure of the atmosphere’s pressure given in bars.

For the purposes of espresso makers, 1 bar is approximately equivalent to the average pressure at sea level. The official measure is 100 kilopascals (kPa), which is slightly less than the actual pressure at sea level.

Thinking of bars as multiples of sea level pressure is sufficient for espresso-making, though. The more important details are knowing that this is the standard way of measuring pressure across espresso machines — and what number of bars you should look for in a machine.

How Many Bars Should a Good Espresso Machine Have?

Unless you’re experimenting with something weird, espresso is extracted at 8 – 9 bars. A good espresso machine should generate this much pressure, or perhaps slightly more.

Any amount of pressure that’s well above 9 bars is unnecessary and makes virtually no difference on the quality of espresso that’s extracted. Sometimes listings advertise machines as having much higher pressures, such as the Gevi Espresso Machine (20 bar) and De’Longhi C155 (15 Bar). Such pressures are primarily a marketing tactic, however.

Any pressure below 8 bars won’t provide the extraction that’s necessary to pull true espresso. Cheap steam machines (see below) only have ~3 bars, which will make strong espresso-like coffee at best.

Pressure as low as ~1 bar can be enough to steam milk with, so the discussion of pressure is primarily limited to espresso extraction considerations.

Pump Driven/Double Boiler

The need for 8 – 9 bars of pressure necessitates a pump-driven or double boiler espresso machine.

Most pump driven espresso machines channel water over a heat exchange that generates the desired pressure. These machines may also be called heat exchange espresso machines, because that’s the component that actually flash-heats water to create pressure. Old-style lever machines accomplish the same pressure by manually pumping the water, and thus fall into the pump-driven category.

Double boiler espresso machines generate and maintain sufficient pressure by channeling hot water from one boiler into another, which is the one that water’s drawn for pulling espresso.

These are both in contrast to steam machines, which build pressure by heating water in single boiler. Steam machines can’t exceed ~3 bars of pressure.

The majority of home espresso machines are pump driven. The Coffee Gator Espresso Machine, Capresso EC100 and Breville Barista Touch are merely a few examples.

The Breville BES920 XL Dual Boiler and La Marzocco Linea Mini are a couple of double boiler models. Double boilers tend to cost much more.

Steam Wand

Make sure your chosen machine has a steam wand or milk frother, so you can create espresso/milk beverages. You’ll need one if you drink cortados, cappuccinos or lattes, and other people will undoubtedly ask for these when you’re entertaining.

Whether a machine is equipped with a steam wand or milk frother depends on the level of automation. Both options are widely available.

Cleaning

Most espresso machines are easy to descale, flush and generally clean. Check reviews to confirm that a machine can easily be cleaned, though. Users will comment if cleaning isn’t simple.

Helpful Features

Some features aren’t essential, but improve the performance and/or convenience of an espresso machine. These helpful features are often specific to certain types of machines.

PID Control (for Double Boilers)

A Proportional Integral Derivative control uses an algorithm to maintain a temperature, providing much more temperature stability than a simple thermostat. Having a PID control on a double boiler espresso maker will keep the temperature more consistent, thus improving shot consistency and allowing for more nuanced experimentation with extraction.

PID controls are usually only found on double boiler machines, as pump machines use a heat exchange that rapidly warms the water. A PID, PID switch or PID control are all the same feature.

The ECM Germany Classika PID and Quick Mill Carola are two PID espresso makers.

Grouphead Size (for All Machines)

The total size of a group head — how much metal it has — impacts brewing temperature by warming water as it enters the ground. A large group head with lots of metal has two benefits because it doesn’t change temperature quickly:

  • Group heads on home espresso makers have a tendency to become hotter than you want for extraction, especially when making multiple beverages or left on. A large group head will take longer to become so hot.
  • A large group head won’t cool much as it transfers heat to water. This helps ensure a more stable temperature as water flows through the group head and into the grounds.

Don’t base your decision primarily, or perhaps even secondarily, on group head size. Lots of metal in the group head is helpful, though. (This doesn’t refer to the actual diameter of the brewing chamber.)

The Olympia Cremina is regarded as having a large group head for its size.

Grouphead Temperature Gauge (for All Machines)

Because group heads are prone to overheating, knowing the temperature of a group head is somewhat helpful. Home baristas who want this data sometimes place a temperature strip sticker directly on their machine’s group head, and a few manufacturers have followed suit.

Home baristas who want to know their group head temperature have been placing temperature strip stickers directly on their machine’s group head. A few manufacturers have followed suit by offering temperature strips or digital group head thermometers among their accessory options.

Few espresso machines come standard with group head temperature strips, but this is one of the easiest upgrades to make. The biggest trade-off is aesthetic, if you don’t like how a temperature strip looks.

Heat safe temperature strips are widely available from hardware stores, appliance stores and other retailers. Coffee Sensor offers temperature strips and thermometers for specific home espresso makers, although they are far from the only palace to purchase these.

Beverage Settings (for Super Automatics)

Since super automatic espresso machines automate the enter beverage-making process, you can only get beverages that are programmed into the machine’s software.

An ideal super automatic espresso machine will have customizable beverage settings, so you can create any combination of espresso and milk you like. Fully customizable beverage profiles are uncommon, however.

At least look for a super automatic that has a number (minimum 4 – 6) of preset options. One that only has 1 – 3 options won’t make some guests’ ideal beverages.

Drip Tray Size (for Automatics and Super Automatics)

In an effort to conserve counter space, some home espresso machines have undersized drip trays.

On automatic and super automatic machines, a small drip tray may have to be emptied repeatedly when making multiple beverages. These machines often backflush after pulling shots, and those backflushes can quickly fill up a drip tray.

Drip tray size isn’t an issue on manual and semi automatic machines, where you control water flow and backflush.

You also shouldn’t base your decision on drip tray size, but this is an issue to be aware of with some machines. The easiest way to check whether a model has this issue is to read reviews about the espresso maker. For instance, several comments mention that the Elektra Microcasa Semiautomatica‘s drip tray fills quickly.

Pressure Gauge (for Manuals/Levers)

Manual lever espresso machines uniquely allow for pressure profiling, as you can vary how shots are pulled. Accurate and consistent pressure profiling is only possible with a pressure gauge, however.

Pulling shots on a manual espresso machine is still fun on a manual machine that has no pressure gauge. Adding a gauge will help you achieve much more consistent results.

Some stock lever espresso makers come with a pressure gauge installed, and others offer it as an optional feature. Gauges for older Olympia Cremina, La Pavoni and Elektra machines are readily available and can be added on. The Flair Pro 2 shows how a pressure gauge can be situated for easy reading.

Flair Espresso Maker PRO 2 (Black) - An all manual lever espresso maker with stainless steel brew head and pressure gauge
  • HANDCRAFT SHOTS OF ESPRESSO - The Flair PRO 2 is a 100% human-powered, manual espresso press. With the Flair Espresso Maker, you have a complete manual espresso machine that can produce professional quality shots of espresso from your home, or wherever you are. Add 70ml of boiled water and a dose of up to 24 grams to yield up to a 56 ml shot with beautiful crema. A burr grinder is essential for use with this product.
  • COMPLETE BREW CONTROL - The Flair PRO 2 features a custom pressure gauge with an Espresso Zone between 6-9 BAR, exactly that needed to create cafe-quality manual espresso extractions. The pressure gauge allows for immediate visual feedback while pulling shots with the Flair manual espresso press. Each Flair PRO 2 manual espresso maker is also capable of handling various brew ratios from 1:1, 2:1 and 3:1, ensuring that you can extract exactly the espresso you want, right from your home.
  • MAJOR BREWING UPGRADES - The Flair PRO 2 features three upgrades over Flair’s other manual espresso makers including a removable stainless steel spout, an enhanced all-stainless steel bottomless portafilter with improved flow dynamics, and a silicone lever grip for better brewing ergonomics.
  • EASY TO CLEAN & PORTABLE - The Flair Espresso Maker is the only manual espresso maker with a completely detachable brewing head. This patented design allows for users to completely remove the brewing head, separate the parts, and rinse under cool water. This design also means the Flair PRO 2 can pack into an included, precision cut carrying case, meaning you can take your espresso anywhere you’d like.
  • BUILT TO LAST - Now with an upgraded, stronger base, post and lever! The Flair PRO 2 is made from durable materials like cast aluminum and stainless steel, so you can be sure your manual espresso maker, by Flair, is built to last. Both the aluminum press stand and the stainless steel brewing head are backed by a 5-year warranty.

A pressure gauge has minimal benefit on spring-loaded lever machines, as the spring provides a set pressure. Gauges are primarily for fully manual lever machines.

Flat Top (for All Machines)

A flat top allows you to store one or two mugs on top of a home espresso machine. This has the dual purpose of conserving space and prewarming the mugs, and it’s commonly done in cafes.

Whether an espresso machine has a flat top is a minor consideration, but prewarming mugs on a machine is a helpful trick when you’re making beverages.

Find Your Next Espresso Machine

There are numerous different home espresso machines, and you’ll find at least one that suits your needs and preferences well. Consider these many requirements and helpful features as you search for that perfect espresso maker.

Last update on 2022-05-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API