The Top 5 Best Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines of 2018

October 12, 2018

Hey espresso lovers, today we reveal our picks for the top five best espresso machines of 2018. These are our picks in five different categories ranging from best entry-level machine up to our favorite plumbable rotary pump dual-boiler boiler machine. We’ll also give our picks for best overall value, best heat-exchange machine, and best brand design. Along with our top machines in each category we’ll have some honorable mentions for your consideration.

I want to note our picks and opinions are based on our staff’s experience testing, using, and servicing just about every home-use semi-automatic espresso machine available in the U.S. Our technicians service hundreds of machines every year and we work directly with manufacturers on machine design and upgrades, so we are really very familiar with these machines inside and out. That said, you may have opinions of your own. And, as always, we’d love to hear them. So whether you agree or disagree with ours, please use the comments and let us know what you think. I’ll also mention we are not considering extreme entry-level espresso appliances at the low end or flooded group pressure profiling machines at the high-end. With that out of the way let’s get to the picks.


Best Entry-Level Machine: Gaggia Classic

The Gaggia Classic has been around for a long time and for a bunch of good reasons. First, there’s just no other machine at this price which comes close in capabilities. Now I do need to be clear I’m referring to the North American version of the Gaggia Classic. As espresso geeks in Europe know, the Classic there changed a few years ago. Here in North America, no change. It still has all the features like a commercial size and weight portafilter, 3-way solenoid valve for dry, easy-to-knock-out coffee pucks, and no power limitations. It’s been rated a best-buy by consumers digest and is a long-term best seller.

The Classic is really the best place to start an espresso journey. It comes out of the box ready to brew using pressurized filter baskets, so you can go without the grinder to start and use pre-ground coffee or ESE pods. Then when you’re ready to up your espresso game, it comes with a standard non-pressurized basket. Add a grinder and suddenly you can brew exceptional shots on par with much more expensive machines.

The Classic comes with an auto-frothing steam wand for no-skill-required frothing. For super-fine latte art quality froth, pick up the optional latte art wand for true barista quality micro-foam.

Compared to cheaper entry-level espresso appliances you will appreciate the Classic as a true machine. It’s built to last. Rugged, easy to service and retains its value. It’s capable of making barista quality shots while cheaper espresso appliances are limited by smaller coffee doses and pressurized basket brewing which fakes the crema.

There’s simply no other true machine with the capabilities of the Classic at this Price.

Honorable mentions in the entry level machine category are the Rancilio Silvia and the ECM Casa V. Both are somewhat more expensive, have larger boilers, and are manual milk frothing only. They are worth a look if you’ve had some experience and are looking for a first home machine. As these are non-pressurized brewing only, you will want a decent burr grinder as well.


Best Bang for the Buck: Expobar Office Lever

For those looking to get the most for their money we move up to a machine with a heat exchange boiler. The Expobar Office Lever allows you to brew espresso and steam milk simultaneously—something you can’t do on entry level single boiler machines. It’s also one of the most affordable machines with an E61 brew group. The E61 uses a thermosiphon system which constantly circulates water from the boiler through the group head for added temperature stability. This means more consistent brew temps, giving you the ability to pull more from today’s specialty coffees.

That E61 group gets you to a higher level of espresso brewing and Expobar E61’s have a custom feature not found on those from other manufacturers. Behind the shower screen, there’s a pre-infusion chamber milled into the group. When you start brewing a shot, this chamber fills slowly, allowing water to soak the coffee prior to reaching full brewing pressure. A couple of benefits with that; wetting the coffee swells it and helps prevent brew water channeling through the puck, which can otherwise cause an uneven extraction. The slower ramping of initial brew pressure may help get a deeper extraction, resulting in more flavor being pulled from the coffee.

The Office Lever with its massive 1.8 liter boiler merges commercial capabilities with a consumer friendly design. Dual gauges monitor brew and steam pressure. The housing is rugged, with some of the thickest case metal you’ll find. The drip tray is large, and we like the angled portafilters and single hole steam tip powered by that large boiler. The Office Lever is available in a plus version which allows for direct connection to a waterline so you never have to fill a reservoir.

Honorable mentions in the best-bang-for-the-buck category are the Elba 1 and Elba 3 machines from 969.Coffee. They feature E61 groups as well, compact design, and similar pricing as the Office Lever. One big difference with the Elbas is they do not have a hot water wand like other Machines.


Best Heat-Exchange Boiler Machine: Profitec Pro 500 PID

The Profitec Pro 500 PID brings a new level of brew temperature accuracy to heat exchange boiler espresso machines. The Pro 500 has been around for a number of years and has been a top seller in the HX machine category. What’s new in the last year is the PID temperature control. With that, you can set the exact temperature you want to brew your coffee at. In heat exchange machines without PID, the brewing process requires flushing out overheated water prior to making espresso.

On the Pro 500 PID, no flushing is required. Just set your brew temp and that’s what you’ll get. Now it takes some good engineering of internal components to make that happen, and that’s what the team at Profitec has done. The thermosiphon flow through the E61 group is designed to work with the PID and provide those rock solid brew temps. Beyond that, we’ve always been impressed with quality of the components and overall design of Profitec’s machines. Their head engineer comes from a background in serving espresso equipment. His goal is machines that are elegantly simple, reliable, and easy to service when needed.

We know this company well. Over the summer we paid another visit to their manufacturing facility in Italy outside Milan to check out some of their latest designs. I can tell you without question, of all the manufacturers we work with. Profitec and ECM are the leaders in innovation. They produce machines that are beautiful inside and out with features users want.

Honorable mentions in the best-HX-machine category go to Rocket Espresso for their Evo R and Type V Mozzafiatto and Giotto machines. They are PID machines as well with the same accurate brew temps as the Pro 500 PID. Now depending on model, they run about two-hundred fifty to seven-hundred fifty more than the Pro 500. That gets you the Rocket branding and, in the Evo R versions, you get rotary pump plumbable machines.


Best Branding Design: Rocket R58

Our winner for best branding design is the Rocket R58. Now, I’ve known Andrew Meo of Rocket who is responsible for their branding design since they introduced the R58 about six years ago. Back when it came out, he said his intention was to create a machine that had a certain sexiness, and I think he's done that.

The R58 is a dual boiler, PID, rotary pump, plumbable machine, and perhaps Rocket’s most recognizable prosumer machine. From the iconic R on the steam knob, to the long, swooping steam and hot water wands, badging on the face and gauges, the curved top edges of the side panels, and the feet which, to me, resemble rocket engine nozzles, there’s no mistaking this machine.

Another design principle with Rocket machines are no visible digital displays. It’s a PID machine but temperatures and other settings are adjusted using a detachable control box. Andrew has told me he didn’t want a modern digital display interfering with the overall look of the machine.

Something else Rocket does that’s a little different; the PID controls on all their machines are set using the actual temperature in the boiler. With most manufactures you set the desired brew temp and there’s an offset which converts the boiler temperature to the temperature at the group. With rocket machines, you use a chart in the manual to get the in-boiler temperature which produces your desired brew temperature.

Rocket is another innovator in espresso machine design. We visited their facility in Italy over the summer and got a sneak peek at their new R Nine One. It’s a flooded group pressure profiling machine meant to compete with the likes of the La Marzocco GS3. I’ll have more on the R Nine One in the future.

Honorable mention for branding goes to Bezzera for their snake-eating-person logo. For years I wondered just what that was all about. Well, I got the answer on our trip to Italy. Turns out the logo is a crest from a castle in Milan. Luca Bezzera told me the story. So, of course, I had to go to the castle and find the logo myself and, sure enough, there it was. I’ll have more on that and Bezzera—one of the only manufacturers which makes just about all the components of their machines themselves in the future as well.


Best Dual Boiler Machine: ECM Synchronika

Aside from very expensive flooded group pressure profiling machines, the top of the line in home espresso is dual boiler, plumbable machines with PID and rotary pumps. Our pick for best in the category is the ECM Synchronika. It’s been around for a few years, but this year it got some major changes which we saw earlier this year at the Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle. The big news is an upgrade to its steam power, giving the Synchronika the most steaming power in its class. It’s an upgrade that we requested and Michael Hauck, CEO of ECM/Profitec, made happen. Now, most dual boiler machines run the steam boiler at around 1.1 bar of pressure. With a PID and component upgrade, the Synchronika can run at near 2 bar of steam pressure. That’s a huge change and really makes a difference in the speed and potential quality of milk frothing.

Along with that PID upgrade come other features, like an eco mode for programmable automatic standby time which turns off the boilers, and maintenance counters so you know when to backflush your machine. Beyond those upgrades, the Synchronika still has all the features we love. It’s by far the easiest machine to open up. Remove six totally accessible screws from the top of the machine and, in less than a minute, you can have the side and back panels off the machine for total access. The PID display becomes a shot timer when pulling shots, the sprung lever valves are easy to operate, and the Synchronika is one of the few machines that does a true line pressure preinfusion when plumbed to a waterline.

We love the added touches as well, like the angled and balanced portafilters with accents to match the E61 lever and drain, dual gauges mounted high for visibility, and the silver finish of the PID display which blends well into the face of the machine.

There’s more.

The Synchronika has some of the finest finishing of external panels and seams. All are smooth and polished to perfection. Even the internal seams are polished with no visible weld marks—something you just don’t find on other machines. Internally the machine is, well, perfection. Simple engineering that’s well laid out, reliable, and easy to work on. The highest quality Components are laid out to protect sensitive electronics from excessive heat and moisture. If you are looking for the best available dual boiler machine, the Synchronika is it.

Honorable mention goes to the Profitec Pro 700. It’s made by the same folks as the Synchronika and, internally, it’s virtually identical to our favorite. It has the same PID upgrade for the extra steam pressure, eco mode, and maintenance reminders. What’s different? It has a more traditional case design, so it doesn’t have the easy access the Synchronika enjoys, and has knob operated high quality sprung valves instead of the Synchronika's levers.

So, those are our picks for the best in semi-automatic home espresso. Again whether you agree or disagree with our picks, we’d love to hear your opinions or questions in the comments.

I’m Marc from Whole latte Love. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll come back soon for more of the best on everything coffee.