Inexpensive steam-driven machines are poor choices, experts say.
Espresso machines designed for home use are available in three main styles: stovetop models, manual units and semi-automatic machines. Pod coffee makers are also venturing into the espresso market; for more information, see our separate report on one-cup coffee makers.
Stovetop models and manual espresso makers don't have pump-driven pressure systems, instead relying on the user to control each brew cycle. These models are the most affordable, ranging in cost between $25 and $75, and have the advantage of portability. Compared to bulky automatic espresso machines that rely on electricity, stovetop and manual espresso makers just need a heat source. While they do take longer to brew than most pump-driven machines, the resulting taste and more precise control over temperature is worth the wait, users generally say.
When it comes to semi-automatic or pump-driven espresso machines, experts tend to agree that $200 is the baseline price for a quality model. While a few budget-friendly units get positive owner feedback, you can expect to pay several thousand dollars for a top-of-the-line machine. Making espresso requires steam, hot water and pressure -- elements that can quickly damage units made with lower-grade plastics and less durable parts -- so the more expensive machines earn praise for durability in most reviews.
Finally, experts say you shouldn't even consider an inexpensive steam-driven espresso machine, noting that only pump models make real espresso. Steam-driven units are incapable of brewing true espresso because water is forced through coffee grounds at only one to three bars of pressure, far less than the minimum nine bars required to make espresso. What you end up with is strong coffee rather than espresso, they say. If strong coffee is all you seek, consider a moka pot or stovetop machine like the Bialetti Moka Express (*Est. $25) or a French press, both of which are far less expensive than even a cheap espresso machine.
To select the best espresso machines, we consult both professional reviews such as ConsumerReports.org and Wired, and owner feedback posted at sites like Amazon.com and specialty coffee retailers such as SeattleCoffeeGear.com and CliveCoffee.com. We look for intuitive espresso machines that produce the best-tasting, most genuine espresso, and are easy to clean. Durability and appearance are also key.