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In some people's eyes, prosumer espresso machines are no more than shiny boxes with minor styling changes to separate them, but I believe the outside tells only a small part of the story. It's an investment of over $1000 and one that's expected to deliver hassle-free service, so learning a little about their construction is time well spent.
Choosing an espresso machine built from quality components and designed with low-maintenance and easy repairs in mind will save you money and aggravation over the long haul. Keep in mind that all of these beauties are hand-built in factories having a fraction of the capacity common to mass manufactured consumer products like televisions. Since prosumer espresso machine manufacturers don't benefit from the naturally low-defect rate inherent to large-scale automation, the human attention to detail is paramount to the quality of the finished product.
I don't claim to be an expert in evaluating the specific reliability of each particular component of an espresso machine, but I can recognize comparative improvements. Removing the covers and comparing the components of each machine to one another and the attention to assembly detail helps judge the likelihood of enjoying trouble-free use. Examples of the manufacturer design decisions I look for include:
In addition to poking around inside, I follow breakdown and repair stories reported online to learn what problems areas a given machine or manufacturer have already been identified by consumers (and hopefully corrected by the manufacturer at its source, although this doesn't happen as often as we would prefer). With the above caveats, I offer some observations about the quality of materials and workmanship of our contestants.
It may seem like a trivial concern, but keep in mind that small adjustments and repairs are a normal part of owing semi-commercial machines. Fortunately it is easy to do and online vendors, forums like those found at Home-Barista.com, CoffeeGeek, and newsgroups like alt.coffee can provide assistance. Once open, the thoughtfulness of the assembly of the Andreja stands out. Wire harnesses are carefully routed and tied off every few inches and the vibratory pump is isolated on the floor of the machine away from electrical junctions. The Andreja Premium scores extra points for insulating the boiler with a thick neoprene sleeve; it saves energy and reduces the interior temperature, which can increase the longevity of electronic components. Judging from the modifications that Chris asked Quick Mill to apply to the Premium model, it's evident that his eye was on reducing service costs. These upgrades include:
There are a number of other minor differences in component choices, but I won't bore you by enumerating them. Instead I'll gather them together as part of an overall score in the next section.