You can make perfect espresso at home, regardless of budget or skill level
Espresso machines designed for home use are popular with coffee lovers who love a perfectly personalized shot of espresso. Espresso is also the base for other specialty coffee drinks like cappuccino, latte, Americanos and other concoctions that add water or warmed milk to the espresso shot. However, you may need additional equipment, such as a milk frother or stainless steel frothing jug for that expanded repertoire.
Most espresso machines use ground beans, and one of the most important things to know about an espresso machine is that unless you opt for an espresso machine that includes a grinder, you MUST have a top-quality coffee grinder, and we cover some great choices in a separate report. Experts and users all agree that this is important because the best espresso is made from the freshest beans and using the correct grind. For those willing to sacrifice espresso perfection for convenience, some espresso machines use pods (pre-measured, pre-ground and pre-packaged coffee), however, either exclusively or in addition to ground beans.
The main types of espresso machines
All of the espresso machines in this report are pump-driven machines -- the only type that make real espresso. Steam-driven units are less expensive, but can't brew 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 (one bar is equal to the air pressure at sea level). With a steam-driven machine you are brewing concentrated coffee, rather than espresso.
Semi-automatic home espresso machines are the most popular and are widely considered to be the best type of espresso machine for most users. They have some automated features, like a pump, temperature controls for the boiler, and switches to activate the pump. You control when the pump is turned off and on, which means you can decide when to pause the brew to adjust the strength and flavor of the final product. A few include a grinder, most don't.
Super automatic espresso machines are much easier to use because, as the name implies, they are fully automatic from the beginning of the process to the end. They grind the beans, dose (transfer the ground beans to the basket), tamp (compress the ground coffee), extract (the process of mixing the coffee with the water to get your beverage), and, finally, eject the waste. Purists don't like fully automatic machines, preferring some degree of hands on brewing, but a good super automatic espresso machine can make great espresso without much hassle.
Manual espresso makers. These lever-style machines are hands on from start to finish. They can be difficult to learn and to use, because they require quite a bit of tweaking, and you can't expect much consistency unless you're a pro or until you've had a lot of practice. This is the choice of true espresso aficionados who like to control every step of the brewing process for the ultimate in customized brews.
Stove top espresso makers also called moka pots, are not, technically, considered espresso machines, but they make a strong, complex coffee that is close to espresso. They're sometimes referred to as "the poor man's espresso machine" because they're inexpensive and easy to use.
Do you need a coffee maker instead?
Espresso is not really a type of coffee, rather, it refers to a special preparation of coffee beans for a small, concentrated shot of coffee. You then consume it over a fairly short period of time. Think of it more as a snack, rather than a full meal. Making espresso can also be a hassle, quite frankly, and requires time, dedication, patience and, often, a good chunk of change. We read many a lament by people who were hoping to be able to make espresso at home and found it was not as easy as their local barista makes it look -- even with a high-end machine. Those who don't have the time and patience will need a super automatic machine.
Also, an espresso machine is not a coffee maker. If you're the type who likes to sip coffee all morning, or are making coffee for a crowd, see our report on coffee makers. If you like a cup of fresh coffee whenever you feel like it and like a high degree of variety with each cup, see our report on single cup coffee makers.
Finding the best espresso machines
There are few professional roundups or tests of espresso machines. Those that exist tend to focus either on the most expensive, top-of-the-line machines, or the most basic manual espresso makers. However, we found a few professional tests, most notably from Cook's Illustrated and ConsumerReports.org, though the latter has become rather dated. We also looked at reviews of individual machines by knowledgeable editors of coffee-oriented sites like Home-Barista.com, SeriousEats.com and WholeLatteLove.com. Most important, we evaluated hundreds (sometimes thousands) of owner reviews to evaluate how each of these machines work in real-life situations. The results of our research are the best espresso machines available, from high-end (and high-priced!) machines that do all the work for you, to the best, manual, hands on models that allow you to customize every sip.