The term dual boiler is used narrowly for machines with two separate boilers, and more broadly for what are more properly called dual heater (DH) machines, featuring a boiler for brewing and a separate thermoblock (TB) for heating brew water to steaming temperature – opposite to HX machines, where the boiler is at steaming temperature and is cooled to brewing temperature.
We opted to look only at “entry level” machines — those billed as semi-automatic and super-automatic — meaning they do some of the work for you. Manual machines, the third type, allow for more personalization but require a much longer learning curve and aren’t typically a good fit for first-time users. We also skipped models that couldn’t steam milk, ensuring that the best espresso maker is also the best cappuccino maker.
Above all, good espresso requires precision. If you’re looking for phenomenal tasting notes, flavor balance, and texture, there is simply no room for error in the machine, the beans, the user, or even the weather. And even if you’re not holding out for the best coffee on the planet, the margin for error is still slim. To test the machines, we pulled shots following the Italian Espresso National Institute's measurement guidelines and paid attention to the following markers of success:
An electric drip coffee maker can also be referred to as a dripolator. It normally works by admitting water from a cold water reservoir into a flexible hose in the base of the reservoir leading directly to a thin metal tube or heating chamber (usually, of aluminum), where a heating element surrounding the metal tube heats the water. The heated water moves through the machine using the thermosiphon principle. Thermally-induced pressure and the siphoning effect move the heated water through an insulated rubber or vinyl riser hose, into a spray head, and onto the ground coffee, which is contained in a brew basket mounted below the spray head. The coffee passes through a filter and drips down into the carafe. A one-way valve in the tubing prevents water from siphoning back into the reservoir. A thermostat attached to the heating element turns off the heating element as needed to prevent overheating the water in the metal tube (overheating would produce only steam in the supply hose), then turns back on when the water cools below a certain threshold. For a standard 10-12 cup drip coffeemaker, using a more powerful thermostatically-controlled heating element (in terms of wattage produced), can heat increased amounts of water more quickly using larger heating chambers, generally producing higher average water temperatures at the spray head over the entire brewing cycle. This process can be further improved by changing the aluminum construction of most heating chambers to a metal with superior heat transfer qualities, such as copper.
If you don’t have the time or want to build a highly customized taste for your espresso mixes and just want a great tasting cup of espresso, super-automatic espresso makers are going to be your best bet. While you do give up some of the control you have over the final product, a super-automatic espresso maker automates almost all of the process for you, meaning that you can just get a great shot of espresso without having to do any extra work. This makes it perfect for people on the go or who prefer convenience over control.
A good grinder: An even grind is essential for drinkable espresso. In fact, if you’re trying to save money, most experts recommend cheaping out on your espresso machine rather than your grinder. Since we wanted to make sure our machines had the best chance of making great espresso, we started with a $600 grinder recommended to us by Seattle Coffee Gear.
Our bean-to-cup espresso machines are easy to clean, with front-accessible components and a removable water tank and drip tray for easy cleanup. Many of our machines also have indicators that remind you when it’s time to clean your espresso machine, so you don’t have to worry about a build-up of limescale putting strain on your machine. Our espresso machines are best cleaned using the De’Longhi descaling solution, which has been proven to be up to three times as effective as regular lime scale removers.
What Amazon users have to say: It's a beast. In a good way. And by that we mean this thing is in it for the long haul. Aside from the astounding beverage quality and ease that the machine produces, one of the most consistent comments made is that the machine will last you a while. Several customer reviews go on to say how they've had the Magnifica for a long time and love it just as much as the day they bought it, even after using it multiple times a day for several years. The machine is obviously a bit pricier than the others on this list, but according to reviewers, the machine is so consistently good and efficient that it pays for itself several times over when you account for all the money you'll save by skipping out on the coffee shops.
For the cappuccino lover in the house, its patented system mixes steam and milk to create a rich froth. All you have to do is stick a container of milk under the nozzle and let it go to work. Then pour as much as that creamy goodness on top of your coffee as you like. For espresso aficionados, the patented "direct-to-brew" system is key. Remember what we said above about the burr grinder? The Magnifica also comes with a built-in burr, which grinds your favorite beans immediately before brewing for maximum freshness. (If you prefer, it also works with pre-ground beans.) The machine has an instant reheat function which keeps it at the perfect temperature, so you don't have to wait for your machine to reheat if you decide to go for that second cup (no matter how long you wait after the first.) The Magnifica has a 1.8 liter removable water container and a 7.1 ounce bean container. To keep things simple, everything happens at the push of a button: choose from five different espresso strengths, cup size, and determine the fineness of the grind.
Why it's great: As much as we appreciate freshly ground coffee beans for our espresso, let's be honest: when you *accidentally* snooze your alarm (five times) in the morning and don't even have time to brush your hair, chances are the last think you're gonna think about doing is grinding some freakin' beans. This could be a problem if you're someone (like me) who can't function without a strong dose of caffeine in the morning. However, not a problem with Nespresso. This life-saver heats up in less than 15 seconds and gets you tasty espresso at the push of a button. You get your quick fix without sacrificing quality.
The Breville's conical burr grinder, made of stainless steel, effortlessly grinds coffee beans and optimizes flavor extraction by maximizing the surface area of the grinds. A 54mm tamper ensures expert tamping control, and a hands-free grinding cradle leaves all the hard work to the machine. Our favorite features are the Breville's grind size/grind amount selector dials, which enable you to customize grinds from fine to coarse.
It’s obvious, but easy to forget: If you don’t clean out your coffee machine’s carafe after each use with soap and water, you’ll always end up tasting a little bit of yesterday’s now-bitter brew. Thermal carafes need to be hand-washed, but all the plastic components of our top picks — brew baskets, lids, etc. — are dishwasher-safe if you keep them on the top rack.
If tinkering is what you’re most excited about, we recommend the Behmor Brazen Plus Customizable Temperature Control Brew System. This is a drip machine that takes its job seriously. It performed the very best in our out-of-the-box taste testing, but still gives you the opportunity to play around with different variables, from water temperature to pre-infusion times. At around $200, it’s on-par with the OXO 9-Cup price-wise, but is definitely not as nice to look at or use, with a tall, bulbous body, squat carafe, and an eight-button programmable interface that reminded us of a digital alarm clock.
CR’s take: The Cuisinart Coffee on Demand is a self-serve model. It stores 12 cups of brewed coffee in a reservoir and has a dispenser instead of a carafe. It makes sense in homes where people are drinking coffee at different times; it keeps coffee hot and ready, so family and guests can fill their own cups. This model is programmable and features a water filter and a cleaning indicator. The reservoir can be removed for washing. In our tests, the Coffee on Demand performs quite well, receiving a Very Good rating for convenience. At less than $100, it can be a terrific choice for entertaining.