From a interface and asthetic point of view, the machine is flawless. It's beautiful and solid, and has many nice touches like an integral storage bin and swiveling steam wand. Having said that, it's missing a few things on the INSIDE that you'd expect from a $400 machine:
For one, it uses a thermoblock. This results in a pressure drop and uneven heating compared to a boiler, which is why there is the need for the double-wall crema system. (I'm referring here to pump machines with boilers, not the cheap steam machines.) This is why you'll find that after brewing you have a soupy sludge instead of the hard dry puck considered an indicator of proper espresso brewing.
Second, the filters and group head aren't made of brass (which is more temperature stable) like you'll see in machines of similar price.
Personally, I'm not sure I have a sophisticated enough palette to discern a difference between espresso from this and a machine with better parts. But given that you're considering spending $400 on an espresso machine, I assume you might be a purist and somebody who cares about getting the best for your money. I also feel the need to offset some of the other breathless reviews by people who clearly haven't bothered to do even a minimal amount of research on espresso machines.
Despite the above, the machine produces very good espresso, as far as I can tell, and it IS beautiful. My guess is that it overcomes some of its component shortcomings with nice engineering (such as the auto-purge feature to avoid scalding the grounds). However, you have to wonder if you're really getting your money's worth where it counts, when there are machines out there at half the price with better internal components and plumbing. You should be able to find machines with more stable temperature and higher effective pressure for much less money if you're willing to go for substance over looks.
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71 of 79 people found the following review helpful:
2.0 out of 5 stars Don't be seduced, April 27, 2006
By Elias Amador "caffeine junkie" (Fresno, CA, USA) - See all my reviews
The Breville 800ESXL proves the old cliche that sometimes beauty really is skin deep. It's a gorgeous package, but it seems like all the money and thought went into making the case and controls, and virtually nothing went into the components that make up the heart of an espresso machine: the boiler, grouphead and portafilter.
By way of background, I've been through several espresso machines in the past, including a couple of those cheap Krups steam machines (OK for the price, but not recommended for serious espresso), and I currently have a Gaggia Espresso and Gaggia MDF grinder. The Espresso is a comparatively cheap machine with a plastic case, but it has a decent boiler and an excellent cast brass grouphead and commercial size brass portafilter. I've been very happy with this machine for the last five years, but we recently remodeled our kitchen and the old Gaggia doesn't fit in with the new decor, so it has to go.
When I first hefted the box that the new Breville came in, I thought it must be a well-made machine because it seemed to weigh a ton. Well, maybe not a ton, but at least 25 pounds. Getting it out of the box by myself was a struggle. I thought I might throw my back out getting it onto the counter. Usually, greater weight is a fairly reliable indication of higher quality, but that's not always the case, as I was about to find out.
From the outside, it's very sexy with all that brushed, die cast stainless steel, metal buttons with LED lights, ball mounted steam wand, even stainless steel on the water tank and drip tray. It also has some very thoughtful features, like a hidden comparment behind the drip tray that holds all the accessories, a special tool to clean out the steam wand, etc.
Unfortunately, the portafilter and group head are both aluminum, and the portafilter is much smaller and less substantial than the Gaggia's commercial size 58mm brass portafilter and group head. The Breville also uses a "crema enhancer", which is usually not considered the best way to make espresso. It produces lots of crema, but not necessarily great flavor. Internally, the Breville doesn't have a true boiler like most mid to high end machines. Instead, it's got a "thermoblock", which is smaller and holds less water than a boiler, and thus doesn't do a good job of producing consistent amounts of hot water at the proper temperature, which is essential for good espresso shots.
Firing it up for the first time, I liked how it warmed up within a couple of minutes, much faster than the Gaggia. The LED's glow blue-white around the power and steam buttons. Very futuristic. I ran a blank shot through the portafilter to warm things up, then ground some Trader Joe's French roast at setting 5 on the MDF, tamped it down hard, and went for the first double shot. The machine pumped a few quick bursts of water into the grounds to prime and expand them, then got down to brewing. Sure enough, the espresso came out fast and frothy. Too fast. Ideally, a shot should take 20 or 25 seconds to brew, and it should dribble out in a nice gentle stream. Not so with the Breville. That thing blasted out a full shot in 10 or 15 seconds, squirting it hard into the glasses. Hmmm. Not encouraging.
The espresso itself looked good with plenty of crema, but it tasted bitter and lacked the creamy, almost chocolatey flavor of the espresso that the Gaggia normally makes. Using the espresso in some steamed milk for a latte, it tasted acceptable, but drinking it on its own wasn't much fun. I tried a few more shots at different grind settings, but still no joy. The espresso looks "right" because of the crema, but it tastes sour.
I also noticed that the coffee grounds don't come out of the filter in a nice hard puck like they do in the Gaggia, but instead dribble out in a gloppy mess. It took me five or six hard whacks in the knock box to get all the grounds out, whereas the Gaggia normally only takes one or two knocks. This is another sign that the machine isn't brewing correctly for quality espresso. A good machine should make firm, dry pucks of spent coffee grounds.
The steaming feature seems adequate, but a bit anemic compared to the Gaggia. Another side effect of the thermoblock design, perhaps?
The bottom line seems to be that the Breville looks great and feels very well made and substantial, but it doesn't come through in the one area that really matters in an espresso machine: making good espresso. As far as I'm concerned, an espresso machine could be made out of duct tape and cardboard, but as long as it makes great coffee I'd be willing to live with it. But looking great isn't good enough. So it's going back to Amazon, and getting replaced with a Gaggia Classic.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Hard-to-find filters clog easily, October 21, 2006
By Kevin Murphy (Los Angeles, CA USA) - See all my reviews
This machine is indeed beautiful, and I find the espresso very good indeed. The problem is that if your coffee is ground too fine, even once, the filter clogs. Due to the design of the crema filter, there is an inaccessible "interior" between the coffee-side filter holes and the bottom-side single exit hole. If this gets too clogged, there is really nothing to do except get a new filter, as the clog is not reachable with any tool.
This wouldn't be too bad if you could actually GET filter baskets when you need them. The only online company that carried them seems to be out of business now. And without a filter basket, this is just so much pretty scupture.
UPDATE: You can get the filters from Breville USA, for a price. You can also use a backflush detergent (like JoeGlo) to clear them, although it's a bit time-consuming and messy.