Choosing an Espresso Machine Rationally

Recommendations for buyers and upgraders from the site's members.
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#1: Post by LittleCoffee »

Hi All,
First time poster here. Rather than go with the usual Machine 1 vs Machine 2 first post, I thought I'd try and run through my thought process of how I got to a machine (drum roll, the result is at the end of this post!). I've found the forum an invaluable aid to stitching my thought process together, but that said at least for me, there is a lot of hearsay about build quality, machine choice etc. which is impossible to split into logic vs. emotion. In a topic which lends itself as well to OCD as well as espresso, this is an unhelpful mix. I'm a big fan of trying to be objectively rational - although that takes an immense amount of energy (and thus is not always practical), I still think there's value in the process.

A bit about me. I studied general engineering and the thought of ripping apart an espresso machine (or repairing my car) by myself doesn't scare me in the slightest. This may well not be you though so read this post for what it is - an engineer trying to rationally select an espresso machine, not having owned one previously.

First off, it seems to me the whole approach to upfront cost most people have leaves something to be desired. Should I spend X, Y or X+100 to get the wooden accent or X+300 for the wooden accent and flow control device although potentially reasonable at the margin doesn't strike me as the best place to start. For me, the rational place to start is relative cost of machine vs. beans per coffee. Why? Because it provides a good framework to hang your expectations of how long the machine will last, your usage of it, its up front cost against something that's easy to compute today which is how much the beans which end up in your cup cost.

I plan to drink maybe 5 coffees a week - I don't drink that much coffee and my wife drinks none. With high quality beans costing 8 per 250g I figure I can get 13 coffees from that which comes to 0.62. I'm deliberately leaving currencies out so you can adapt to yours by multiplying or dividing the end result by the right amount. If your beans cost 10 then you should multiply the 0.62 by 10/8.

I'm working to a budget of 3000 for machine, all the additional stuff and grinder. A huge factor is how long I think the machine will last with that usage. The machine gets worn two ways. One, mechanically with levers, switches, pump, motor wear. This is a function of time spent working pumping boiling water at 9 or so bar. Two, heat wear. Despite materials aging slowly, they do degrade (exponentially) faster at higher temperatures. This video was hugely informative for me. Leaving a machine on 24x7x365 massively accelerates thermal wear on it. This is not specific to ECM, or any other manufacturer, it's a simple law of thermodynamics. And what the video shows is that a reasonable quality machine in the sort of price range I'm talking about is likely to last 2 years of being on 24x7 before needing at least some repair - though by the looks of it on that video, the Synchronika is likely to need extensive repair with that load. There's a reason you pay a lot more for a commercial machine - they're better designed for the heat wear (and mechanical wear). I don't mean to pick on ECM - I genuinely don't expect much different from a machine in this price range no matter who made it as this is at the end thermodynamics at play.

That said, the video was also hugely re-assuring for me. I'm likely to have the machine on maybe 3 maybe 4 hours a day. At that rate, thermal wear will get it to look like the machine in the video after 12-16 years. (24/3 or 4, multiplied by the 2y age the video claims). With mechanical wear added, I think a reasonable age to expect a 3k budget range machine to last is about 8 years. Could it be 10? Sure. Could it be 6? Also possible. You'll say yeah, but after 8 you can repair and carry on. And I'll say sure, but if you're the sort to drop 3000 on a machine you'll be lusting after the newness after 8 years. So for our numbers, let's stick to 8 years.

With my 5 coffees a week, a 3k set-up depreciating to nothing over 8 years comes to 1.44 depreciation cost per coffee. That's a machine/coffee cost ratio of 2.3x per coffee (1.44/0.62). Again, you can scale this up or down based on your currency and expected usage. 2.3x seems like a lot to me. Probably an irrationally high level at least for me. To be honest, anyone that is spending more on the machine than the beans per coffee is hard to claim is being rational - I struggle to believe that the machine contribution to taste is 2.3x the bean contribution. But you of course may have a different view. And you'll probably drink more coffee than me so your ratio won't be that high.

What this really means is that my 3k budget comprises of 1300 reasonable machine cost (1x bean cost per coffee) and 2700 vanity "hobby spend" because hobbies are irrational and I'm lucky enough to be able to afford it. Would I drop 2700 for a 8 year hobby? That's like 1 a day. It's an expensive hobby, but is also something I can afford. Should you? Depends on you. But I'm pretty sure this is at the top end of what I would do - and hence why a Linea Mini or GS/3 would be an irrational choice for me personally.

Enough economics. Now to engineering.

I struggle with HX machines. The compromise just doesn't make any sense to me. You're spending most of the money to get good thermal control, but you don't quite get it. This idea of "Oh just do a flush and it's good to go" is nonsense - if you're aiming for precise temperature control you just can't do it with a flush. Is HX better than a Nespresso? Almost certainly. And if I couldn't afford a dual boiler, that would be a rational reason to look at the HX compromise more closely. But I have the money so am not.

If you're spending lots of money to get thermal stability from a dual boiler, you should get thermal stability. This is literally the most important thing you are buying as it has the biggest impact on taste. And you can try and convince me that a proprietary group head with thermoblock is better than an E61 but you'll struggle to convince me. There is an incredible amount to say for a design that has remained a leader over a period of 60 years of pretty significant innovation. And thermodynamics also have a lot to say about using a big old lump of metal and water to provide your thermal stability. And reliability has a lot to say about using thermosyphoned water as your heat exchange fluid. I just don't see anything come close to this, and so I need an E61 group head. No iffs, not buts, for me. And so we fill our hopper with dual boiler machines that have an E61 head and can be had on less than a total budget of 3000. Enter the Profitec 700, ECM Synchronika, Lelit Bianca, Izzo Alex IV Duetto, QuickMill Vetrano 2B and Bezzera Duo MN. All have PID because there's no sensible other way of controlling things.

I spent a lot of time looking at videos. Including the two infamous Bianca videos. I spent a lot of time thinking about machine design in my head. The reality is that a machine design involves hundreds if not thousands of design choices. Nowhere did I see a sorted list of design choices to prioritise, and so here is mine, in two categories: Longevity and Usability. I focus on the ones which seem obviously important to me. An experienced practitioner may well disagree with me - I don't have the life experience. These, however seem theoretically important to me.

I've looked at lots of machines inside. The two major design decisions relating to longevity in a DB machine seem to be do you risk flooding or cooking your electronics? If you put them low, they probably won't cook but they might flood. If you put them high, they probably won't flood but they might cook. But here's the thing unless you'll inspect your machine every x months once it makes it to its fifth anniversary, at some point it seems to me the machine will leak with 100% certainty. I don't know if that point is in the 5th, 10th or 15th year. It's inevitable that something will degrade to the point where it can neither hold 9 bar or 1.5 bar. And at that point you just don't want a pump or a controller directly below your boiler. With a motor replacement cost of c. 1/10th of the machine initial cost, that's roughly an extra year of usage from having a motor that can't flood because it's high enough. If you like, it's like a design decision that gives you 0.144 (on my numbers) lower depreciation cost per coffee - that's like a quarter of your bean cost! It's a reason it's a top priority.

So which machines does my "pump can't flood" requirement rule out? Bye bye Syncronika, Profitec 700 and Bianca. The Profitec would probably not have been there to begin with given lack of stainless steel frame - that just seems to invite rust. We're left with the Bezzera Duo, the Izzo Alex Duetto IV and the Quick Mill Vetrano 2B.

The Duo has however traded cheap manometer gauges for an expensive, likely proprietary touch screen. I bet that a complex touch screen mounted inside a hot machine doesn't last 8 years. Is that a rational view? Maybe, maybe not. But the one video I found showing the insides of the Duo seems to show how to replace the display seems to confirm this. I just can't rationally justify a design choice to go from a simple, OK to beautiful looking manometer, wherever it might be on the fascia to a complex oled touchscreen pressure gauge.

So I'm left with the Izzo Alex Duetto IV PID and the Quickmill Vetrano 2B

I dig into it a bit more. So now I move onto the usability considerations.

1. Boiler drainage. Sure, you should use softened water. But you can't use distilled water. Therefore, by definition you will be putting minerals through your boiler. And by definition it will scale up. It's not an if, it's a when. Therefore, descaling is not an if, it's a when. And therefore, being able to drain the boilers easily is an absolute must for me. I just don't' understand how you can design a complex machine and not meet this requirement. Both the Alex Duetto IV and the Vetrano also have boiler drainage. The Vetrano I think is behind a screen so maybe a slight minus but no disqualification.

2. Pressure adjustment. A very handy by product of mounting the pump motor vertically so that it can't flood is that the fluidotech pump pressure adjustment rotates from the bottom of the machine and comes out the side. I've never owned an espresso machine, but the thought of adjusting something on the bottom of a 30kg unit with a screwdriver whilst it's boiling water at 9 bar and live mains electricity strikes me as ludicrous. Again, both the Vetrano and the Duetto IV have this so we're still down to two.

3. Dual walling the machine enclosure. It channels the heat vertically while reducing overall heat loss. It's means the machine will use less electricity AND your cup warmer will be hotter per unit electricity used. And your boiler elements will wear out slower as they'll spend less time heating as a result of the insulation. And the sides aren't as hot. Here the Vetrano drops a point - it has insulated single walls rather than double walls. Probably not a disqualification but the Duetto IV's double walls are a plus.

4. Flow control. If you've spent 3k satisfying your OCD it's hard to see how you'll stay satisfied without going the full flow control route. Luckily both the Duetto and Vetrano's E61 seems completely standard so a kit will fit. They're both still in the race.

5. Angled portafilters. If you're designing a portafilter why would you choose any angle other than the angle which makes them sit level on a countertop? I just don't understand why, but Profitec, Bezzera and Quickmill designers do this. Bye bye Vetrano, but by a small margin!

So for me a the end of this long theoretical paper exercise, the Alex Duetto IV is in a league of it's own, but the Vetrano is a very close runner-up.
What's not to like on the Duetto? The PID 7 segment display looks nasty. It's mounted at the hottest point of the machine. It will inevitably cook and need replacing. But it's as widely used a part as you can get and it's also at the easiest place to replace something as you can get. That seems a reasonable compromise in light of everything else.

I also worry a bit about the stainless boilers. No machine has stainless throughout and mixing metals is never a good thing from an electrolysis perspective. Perhaps a small plus is that the Duetto is on version 4 already - I like the thought of a design that has been iterated over a long time. There's no way a first time design will get the thousands of design decisions right, but iterating based on long term reviews is sure to arrive at a better result. I did spend a lot of time thinking about the Bianca - I can see why it's such an interesting machine, but I also wonder about the longevity of the design - only time will tell. A Bianca v3 would be very interesting where it comes out as that design team has shown some real innovation.

Also, a note on what I haven't discussed - and there's a lot. Boiler size. Are you really going to notice a 100ml difference? Wattage power. Are you really going to notice a 100W difference? I think once you get used to it unless you compare directly to another machine, you'll just be used to it. Hence, I have ignored completely. I may well be wrong.

So that's it for me - the Alex Duetto IV and a flow device is my choice or as rational a choice as I think I can make for me. I'll need to do the grinder next - and there I'm not up to speed just yet. But the concept of flat burrs that are angled seems to be trying to replicate a cone but with flat burrs, and so I suspect I'm starting to lean towards worm geared conical burr grinders but haven't done the reading.

And this is just where my journey has got me to - no doubt yours will be different and that's absolutely fine. I'd be very happy to read any thoughts or issues this post stimulates with a spirit to improving my thinking.

Happy caffeining!

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#2: Post by MB »

Cafelat Robot seems to efficiently tick off a lot of your boxes. No steam for milk drinks.
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#3: Post by Bluenoser »

That's a lot of analysis for 5 drinks a week. Go for a DB .. but after a few years, you will realize that a $600 manual, combined with a K-Plus, C40 Clik or Kinu ($300) will give you every bit of quality and with much, much less maintenance and greatly increased reliability. One drink a day will require only 30 seconds of grinding with the side benefit of 5 less pushups a day. Even if you do milk, a Bellman or Nanofoamer will provide latte art mix. From a hobby perspective though, it is quite interesting to experience the various machines, burr types and their nuances.

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#4: Post by cafeIKE »

Buy a Nespresso every coupla / three years.

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#5: Post by Jeff »

I didn't see anything about the usability of the machine. Awkward controls every morning outstrip fancy engineering for me. Engineering doesn't make great coffee, the people using the gear do. For simplicity, if you don't make milk drinks (or would be satisfied with a simple frother), a Robot (or Flair 58, though I haven't tried one) is going to be hard to beat for anything but light-roast coffees.

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#6: Post by another_jim »

Rational decisions require knowing yourself, your own preferences, tastes, and aesthetics. For instance, Jeff calls a Robot simple since it is completely controllable and intelligible. But to me, its a total pain to use a machine that can't heat its own water.

To the OP: If you are new to espresso; you cannot make a rational decision about what to buy, since you don't yet know what you like or what you are like in regard to this hobby. Buy something reasonable that will let you find out what brings you joy.
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#7: Post by VoidedTea »

Just to chime in on the rationality part of your thought process. I think what is missing is the so-called "risk-benefit" analysis of different types of machines, which should normally precede your cost and mechanical analysis. This would usually directly address personal preferences mentioned above by other poster. Instead, you just went with a budget of 3000 without explaining why you think this is the amount you must spend. And looking at your needs of 5 drinks per week, it doesn't seem very rational. I had this budget in mind when I started my analysis a year ago, but when I looked at my list of "risks", or conditions I would like to avoid at all costs, Robot came like a winner. Particularly, I wanted to avoid all the maintenance hustle, like descaling, water treatment, warm up time, etc. Then there was a counter space problem. So all expensive machines were eliminated even before I could think of a budget. A year later, and I am still happy with my Robot / Lagom combo. I make 14-17 drinks per week. No milk. Totally happy and at a fraction of 3000 budget (just for espresso machine). I am not saying this is for everyone, and maybe you have done your comparison of different types of machines and decided that manual lever does not fit your personal preferences and just didn't mention it in your post. Just wanted to bring this up for consideration.

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#8: Post by Randy G. »

How many here were able to fit your machine into the 'rationality matrix' and justify why yours fits as well as (or better than) the OP's?
How can you rationalize an espresso machine purchase when a $30 Aeropress can make such a great cup of coffee?
Go through the post a pic of your espresso set up' topic. It's a photo-essay of the pointy end of irrationality.
Finally, how many read the topic here, read the first sentence, then scrolled to the bottom for the answer?

Want proof this is an exercise in justification ? Look at #5! Ruling out a machine because of the angle of the portafilter!?
Rather than go with the usual Machine 1 vs Machine 2 first post, I thought I'd try and run through my thought process of how I got to a machine
5. Angled portafilters. If you're designing a portafilter why would you choose any angle other than the angle which makes them sit level on a countertop? I just don't understand why, but Profitec, Bezzera and Quickmill designers do this. Bye bye Vetrano...

I use to work on friends' cars, motorcycles, and bicycles. Just for fun, and for the most part just little stuff. The one thing I hated was when they would show up with a used vehicle they just purchased and said, "Look what I got! Can you work on it for me?"
And I would reply, "Why didn't you ask me if you should have bought it in the first place?" - 2000-2023 - a good run, its time is done
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#9: Post by mgrayson »

100% of rational thought is justification of our feelings. Or, as an elderly pastor said in an interview "One thing I've noticed in 70 years of service to the community is the astonishing correlation between self-interest and God's will."

Sometimes, with experience, our feelings develop to our benefit.

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#10: Post by Randy G. »

We are all guilty of that from one extreme to another. I reflect to 21 years ago at my purchase of a Silvia+Rocky, and now to my ownership of a machine and grinder which cost many multiples of that, and at many points between which have been filled with sufficient 'rational justifications' to fill a website. This forum is filled with same. Like the stories from the 1958 TV series "The Naked City"; My tale is just one of them. - 2000-2023 - a good run, its time is done