The most popular types of home espresso machines are semi-automatic because they offer the espresso aficionado a nice balance of automatic functions, such as a pump and temperature controls so you don't have to boil your own water, with some manual functions to control when the pump is activated so you can tweak the final result. In most cases you'll still need a top coffee grinder, though, and we cover those in a separate report. If you prefer that the machine do all the work, see our discussion of super automatic espresso machines elsewhere in this report. On the other hand, if you're a very hands on type of person who wants to control every step of the process, see our discussion of manual espresso machines.
Although most semi-automatic espresso machines do not include a built-in grinder, one that does, the Breville BES870XL (Est. $600), gets a lot of praise from hundreds of satisfied coffee lovers. This espresso maker won a 2013 Best New Product Award for equipment from the Specialty Coffee Association of America. The BES870XL is an upgrade of the Breville BES860XL (Est. $600) which has been discontinued but is still available at some online retailers.
With the option of pressurized or non-pressurized portafilters (which holds the coffee grounds) and the single hole, articulating steam arm you can use the Breville BES870XL as a semi-automatic or super automatic machine (we specifically discuss super automatic espresso machines in the next section), which is something users love because that makes it more suitable for families with a range of skills -- or for beginners who want the option of becoming an expert barista. You can start by using the BES870XL as a super automatic espresso maker, then, with practice, become more hands on with your espresso prep. We even found quite a few folks who use the BES870XL both ways -- as a fully automatic machine when they're in a rush, yet taking their time to customize their brew when they're not.
The BES870XL has a built in conical burr grinder that users describe as very accurate and highly adjustable. The bean hopper is removable so you can easily store leftover beans to keep them fresh. The hot water dispenser means you can make other types of drinks as well, such as Americanos, making it an incredibly versatile machine.
Many owners say they came to the Breville BES870XL after getting tired of having to use two separate appliances to grind and then brew -- they love having the built-in grinder option, thus saving space and a step in the process. However, this feature is more popular with those who don't like the inconsistent results of having to be more hands on; it's not a darling of serious espresso aficionados, who feel it's a bit too much like an automated coffee maker and who are often scornful of any espresso machine that's not manufactured in Italy (Breville is an Australian company); but most users are plenty pleased.
If you are one of those Italian espresso purists, you can't do better than the Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine (Est. $700). Reviewers say it's built like a tank, with a stainless-steel housing and marine brass group head (which holds the portafilter) and boiler for better heat retention. The multidirectional steam arm offers a user-friendly experience and it has an ergonomic portafilter that users appreciate.
Most experts say that the Rancilio Silvia is the only sub-$1,000 machine that ranks up there with the top, far more expensive espresso makers. Many owners and experts at coffee enthusiast sites say it boasts close to commercial quality. Users also note that the Silvia's resale value is excellent and replacement parts are readily available, important for a machine that can be expected to last 10 to 15 years or more.
There's a learning curve to every espresso maker, however, and the Rancilio Silvia is a bit finicky in terms of temperature, tamping density and grind fineness. Overall, though, it's very user-friendly and its design makes it suitable for a wide range of users. That includes everything from beginners who are serious about learning, to hard-core espresso devotees who will appreciate the option of adding features such as proportional-integral-derivative (PID) technology, which allows for highly precise temperature control.
Several owners suggest buying a higher-quality tamper than the one included, and a Pod Adaptor Kit (Est. $120) is available for those who prefer the convenience of coffee pods. Since a precise grind is essential for optimal use and taste, experts and more experienced owners recommend using the Silvia in combination with a top-quality burr grinder, which we cover in our separate report on coffee grinders.
There are semi-automatic espresso machines that get generally good reviews and are considered mid-priced machines. One that stands out is the Gaggia 14101 Classic (Est. $350), which earns praise from both professional reviewers and owners, with several saying it rivals the Silvia. The Gaggia has a 72-ounce water reservoir and stainless-steel housing, and boasts many of the same high-end features as the Rancilio. The Classic's frothing head is easy to use and clean, and users like that it produces perfect crema (the thin layer of foam that sits on top of the espresso). Complaints that keep it out of the top spot include a dark water reservoir that makes it difficult to judge water levels and an aluminum boiler that's more susceptible to corrosion than brass.
Besides price, the Classic does have one advantage over the Silvia: It can make espresso from freshly ground coffee or Easy Serving Espresso (ESE) pods without having to purchase a separate adaptor. The Gaggia Classic's build quality is also applauded in reviews, with multiple users saying they've owned this machine for years without a single issue.
One espresso machine that's far cheaper than any other semi-automatic espresso maker we review is also one of the most popular: the DeLonghi EC155 (Est. $100) gets more feedback than any other model at online retailers -- most of it highly positive. Users say it gives you a lot of bang for the buck and experts agree: One consumer testing organization gives it an "excellent" rating for taste and a "very good" score for frothing ability. Other experts note that the 15-bar pump produces a nice crema for a delicious espresso finish. Owners say it makes a tasty brew and they love that it's compatible with both fresh grounds and pods.
We saw a few complaints that the frothing wand is poorly positioned, making it difficult to fit a steaming pitcher underneath. Others say that only small demitasse cups will fit under the portafilter or that the machine brews too quickly to achieve proper crema. Still, most agree that these are minor inconveniences considering the low price.