Lelit MaraX Review

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#1: Post by another_jim »

What you don't see is what you get:

Once upon a time, I thought you made a shot of espresso by putting coffee in a basket, the basket in an espresso machine, and turning it on. That was before I owned an espresso machine. Then I learned about all the variables I had to control, and all the contortions I had to go through to control them. I learned that there are three kinds of espresso machine: those where each of the variables had its control setting, those where each of the variables had its control contortion, and those where there was no control and no hope of a good shot.

Now there is the MaraX, which is pretty much the espresso machine you thought you would get before you know anything about espresso machines - no contortions, no settings, but the variables are controlled. There is actually a hidden switch for setting temperature, but mostly this machine controls itself and makes good shots with an absolute minimum of fuss.

Note: This thread is closed for comments until the initial research is complete. If you have questions you would like addressed as part of this review, please post them in Lelit MaraX.

The X is based on prior versions of the Mara, which is what we coffee hobbyists call an "E61 Box." An E61 Box is a stainless steel box with an E61 group in front, and a boiler with a heat exchanger and vibe pump inside. E61 boxes make great shots if you go through all the right contortions. You flush the group to get it to the right temperature, you manually adjust the pump to play nice with the basket and coffee you are using, you have a wide array of baskets and a lot of experience on dosing and grinding. E61 boxes have been very, very popular because once you know the contortions, you can make great shots. This means that their build quality has been getting better over the years. It's been about a decade since I Iooked inside one, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how much better the innards look now. The improved build quality make the new features on the X possible; I'm pretty sure my old 2002 Isomac Tea would have been spraying water and steam from a dozen leaks if you had tried to do what Lelit does on the X.

Keeping it simple:

What the X does is pretty revolutionary. On espresso machines, even double boilers, the boiler temperature is controlled. But the shot's temperature is mostly determined by the group's temperature, not the boiler's. In the Mara, the steam boiler cycles up and down to keep the group at the target temperature. In E61 machines, the group is heated via a thermosyphon that circulates boiler water through the group. The Mara measures the water flowing out of the group, back to the boiler, and cycles the boiler to keep it steady. The reason this takes high build quality is because the boiler is cycling up to pressures much higher than is usual in steam boilers. At warm up, the boiler pressure can get up to 2.75 bar.

The result is that with no contortions and no flushing, the temperature is about as accurate as the larger and more expensive double boiler E61s (the same control system on a DB E61 would probably take that up to the saturated group big leagues in temperature stability).

The other big change on the X is that the preinfusion time is longer, and the pressure ramp up is much more linear. The result is that you can use finer grinds just like on a commercial lever and profiling machine. I made 14 gram shots using a Turkish grind with George Howell's Rwanda Kanzu; the shots took 40 seconds to get to 30 grams shot weight, and the taste was very good. In fact, I did go to a slightly coarser grind, not because the machine was limited, but because I wanted a more forward taste.

These tweaks make using the machine a lot more like using a profiling or lever machine than using a conventional fixed brew pressure machine. It will still get into trouble with super light roasts that don't produce fines, and gush regardless of grind setting. For these you do need pressure throttling throughout the shot. But other than those, the machine will produce fine shots from any coffee given a proper grinder. I had the machine set up beside the Lelit Bianca, my regular machine, which uses a needle valve in the group to manually control pressure. Setting the paddle to a fixed position does not reproduce the pressure profile of the X, since the set up is never as linear. You have to start with the valve wide open, throttle it, then open it back up, to get the linearity of the X's ramp up. This shows the kind of "what you don't see is what you get" tuning effort that went into the machine.

Inside look at the Lelit MaraX:

Here is a rambling video that covers the innards and functionality of the X. Apologies for the quality: it's my first cell phone video; and I still need to learn how to point and talk at the same time.
I received a beta machine from Lelit last July, and the production version early in February. My review is based on using each of these machines for about a pleasant month each. The machines are freebies; otherwise, I received no compensation.
Jim Schulman
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another_jim (original poster)
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#2: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

Mara X Features

If that video left you thoroughly confused; here is a much better one by Lelit's Mauro Epis, the machine's designer

Temperature Control:
The signature feature of the Mara X is that it automatically controls the group and shot temperature. The steam boiler cycles between between about 0.875 bar and 1.875 bar to maintain the group at its set point. The set point is set via a three position switch located behind the drip tray at the front, bottom left of the machine. The 0 setting gets you 89C to 91C, the 1 setting gets you 91C to 93C, and the 2 setting gets you 93C to 95C. The group stays within this set range, but where in the range you are at depends on the time within the control cycle. When the temperature gets towards the bottom of the range, the heater turns on and the steam boiler goes up to 1.875 bar; when the group gets to the top of its temperature range, the heat turns off and the boiler pressure drops. Most of the time the heat is off, and the group is slowly dropping from the top of its range to its bottom.

If you are being geeky and want a precise temperature, flush the group until the heat turns on, and wait till it turns off, you are then at the top of the set point range. I did not notice an improvement in shot quality doing this; but I'm not into super fine tuning shots either. The HX itself is a minor masterpiece (see below), and the shot profile is dead flat. So if you are into this, you can get more precise temperature control than with a E61 DB (if you are old enough to remember "temperature surfing" Silvias you know what this is about). Personally, I don't think this machine (or any E61) is for someone who wants ultra-precise temperature control. The point is that it delivers no muss, no fuss, roughly right temperature control that is as good as most DB E61s in a very compact and economical package.

The X has a fine tuned preinfusion which is, to my mind, as important as the temperature control. Normally on an E61, there is almost no rise in pressure for the first 6 to 8 seconds. The puck is wetting, but at very low pressure. After this time,the pressure ramps up very quickly. On the X, Lelit has used a smaller jet and a stiffer preinfusion spring. This results in a steady pressure ramp up, starting almost immediately and hitting 10 bar after about 15 seconds. The benefit is that the machine can handle finer grinds at higher doses. The grind and dose setting on the X is more like a commercial lever machine than a conventional E61. Being able to use finer grinds at higher doses makes handling light roasted coffees nearly as easy as it is on lever and profiling machines.

The early attraction of E61 boxes and other home HX machines was being able to steam and make shots at the same time. On these machines, a mechanical pressure stat set the machine at around 1 to 1.25 bar. Things got even better with double boilers that had steam boilers set at 2 bar. The X doesn't have the steam boiler set at anything. Instead, in normal operation, the pressure can go up to as high as 1.875 bar, and as low as 0.875 bar, all to keep the group at the proper temperature. This means no flushing to make shots; but it does mean a lottery when it comes to steaming. The steaming is really nice when the pressure is high, and 'meh' when it is low, not bad, but very basic. There is a tweak. If the pressure is low, a short 2 second flush will turn the heater on, and the pressure will get up to 1.75 bar in about a minute. So, no flushing ever for shots; but an occasional flush if you want kick-ass steaming for your cappa.

No Thermosyphon Stall:
The X uses the thermosyphon circulation for its temperature control. This makes it critical to prevent stalls. So the pump will occasionally pulse to keep the interior pressure in the thermosyphon and heat exchanger at 10 bar. E61s are not particularly prone to stalls; but they do happen. So this is a nice side effect of the way the temperature control works.

The Heat Exchanger:
The heat exchanger in an HX espresso machine can run from WTF to really nice. At the WTF end is a coil of braided cable lying on the bottom of some old Spanish and Slovenian espresso machines I've seen. At the top end are the fine tuned creations you find in the NS Aurelia and some of the Cimbali machines. The X's heat exchanger is pretty sweet, a counter flow set up with concentric pipes, the pump feed being the interior pipe flowing from boiler top to bottom, and the feed into the group being the outer pipe flowing from bottom to top. The thermosyphon return runs into the outer pipe at the bottom of the boiler. The effect is that the shots run very much flat line, even with a naked TC,and no padding in the basket to do the measuring.

Small Size:
The Mara is close to record small, about 9 inches wide, 14 inches high, and 16 inches deep. This means it's great for tight spaces; but it has some drawbacks. The steam and water wand in use extend beyond the machine --you'll need about 12 to 15 inches of width to work in. The insides of the machine are packed (see video). It's well laid out and quite serviceable; but it's not friendly for interior modding or customizing. One nice thing is that the cabinet can be removed easily -- there are no screws or tabs hidden on the underside.

Pump Noise:
Lelit makes quiet vibe pumps a selling point; and the X is quieter than most vibe pump machines I''ve used. It also has a pleasing, not-so-buzzy, baritone sound. The reasons are as follows. First the pump is by Olab, and labelled as specially made for Lelit. The rubber mount is also branded as Lelit and is bigger than the usual mount. The OPV, which can be a noise source, is good quality, and quiet when releasing pressure. Finally, the machine has a low water debit, and vibe pumps run quieter when pumping lower volumes of water. Note that the machine is small, and the vibration can easily transmit to the drip and cup trays: if you hear a rattle, check that these are properly seated.

Set Up:
Once upon a time, setting up electronics required knowing the right conjurations and magical gestures, "hold down button C for 3 seconds, then button A for 19, while entering the code FB18CA." With everything turning into apps, this era is nearly over, thankfully. But a few things are staying old school, the X included. Here's the X grimoire:
  • the machine can either stay on full time or go into economy mode after 30 minutes. To switch between these, turn the machine off, lift the levetta (this is the correct name for the E61 lever) and turn the machine on. When the on button light starts flashing , the mode has been changed. Turn the machine back off, lower the levetta and run as usual. The machine is delivered with economy mode enabled
  • the machine can either run as the X, with the boiler varying pressure to keep the group at target; or revert back to a pumpkin E61 box. There is a switch on the right side, near at the front, hidden behind the drip tray. On 1, it is in X mode, on 0, it is in pumpkin mode. The machine is delivered in X mode; and I recommend you forget this switch exists
  • You can set the group temperature to 89-91, 91-93, 93-95 centigrade with a three position switch located at the front left behind the drip tray. The switch has 0 (89-91, 1 (91-93) and 2 (93-95) markings. The machine is delivered in 1, 91C-93C.
The final versions of the user and tech manuals are not yet posted at Lelit. Here are the preliminary ones: Finally, if you have questions or criticisms, please post in The ongoing Mara X thread.
Jim Schulman
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another_jim (original poster)
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#3: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

Who Should Buy It

I was happy using the X for two months. Like the Strega and Bianca, I could use it on all the coffees I usually roast and drink without having to fight the machine and go through contortions. This means the X is punching way above its weight; a basic HX machine requires not just flushing, but a great deal of finesse on dose and grind for lighter roasts; the X is way better in this regard. In this sense of build and shot quality, I can recommend the Lelit Mara X for everyone from beginner to advanced.

Psychologically, this is a hands off machine. I enjoy intervening in the shot; so I like manual profiling machines like levers or the Bianca. Other people like setting up all the variables precisely and ahead of time, for them, something like the Decent is a better choice. If you want no fuss great shots, especially in a tight space, the X may be the best espresso machine out there for you.
Jim Schulman
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