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Buying an espresso machine: Everything you need to know

An espresso machine pouring coffee into a cup
(Image credit: Future)

Espresso machines are getting more and more popular as coffee is a vital ingredient in the everyday life for many of us. We not only use it to help us wake up in the morning, or give ourselves a boost through the workday. We also drink it socially, when out and about, or when we invite friends and family over to our house.

But if we always go for the premium café option, we'll soon find ourselves shelling out large amounts of money when tallied up over a month. And because there are so many tasty options available, the trusty old filter coffee maker at home or in the office just doesn't cut it anymore.

An espresso machine can solve both these problems. And that is why you're here, on this page, reading this.  It can brew a tasty shot of coffee, either for a quick espresso hit or to use in a latte, cappuccino or Americano, right at home. And it doesn't leave you having to shell out a small fortune every time, or stand in a line for 20 minutes.

But what makes a good espresso maker? What should you look for when comparing models? And how much should you expect to pay for the espresso machine of your budget-conscious dreams?

How Much Do Espresso Machines Cost?

At the most basic level, you can get a stovetop espresso maker for about $30. If you want a simple, single-cup, pod-style espresso machine, you might spend between $40 and $150. This depends on frothing capabilities, water reservoir size and other features. 

The most popular espresso machines cost between $150 and $300. But if you're really into concentrated coffee, you should consider espresso machines between $450 and $1,200. These are capable of producing professional café-quality espresso in your kitchen.

We have tested a range of espresso makers from the most popular mid-range price point, which you can read all about in our guide to the best espresso machines.

A person making espresso with an espresso machine

(Image credit: Future)

What makes a good espresso machine?

Performance

A perfect shot should have a balance of sweet, acidic and bitter flavors. It should be hot but not scorching; and it should have a thick layer of crema on top. In our group test, we got help from a seasoned barista, testing each espresso machine with the same brand, roast and grind of coffee.

The result from each espresso machine was different. We found that machines without pressurized portafilters, or filter baskets, required a finer grind. It was easy to spot the high-quality shots by their crema alone, but we also relied on testers to determine which machines made the best espresso.

Since an espresso machine doubles as a cappuccino maker, we tested each one’s ability to create tight microfoam out of milk. We used exactly 4 ounces of milk for each steaming test and made sure to heat it to about 150 to 155 degrees Fahrenheit. There were a few automatic steamers that produced better results than the steam wands because they are regulated, but you don’t get as much control.

Most commercial espresso machines use 9 bars of pressure (1 bar equals regular atmospheric pressure), which is enough to brew a proper cup of espresso. Most espresso machines made for home use claim they can use 15 bars or more. The difference here is in the type of pump they use, and it’s why the best commercial espresso machines cost more. The vibratory pumps home espresso machines use need to create 15 bars of pressure to get the required 9 bars to the portafilter. Anything more than 15 bars is superfluous.

Convenience

Automatic espresso makers are much easier to use than manual machines. With a manual machine, you need to know how fine you should grind your coffee beans and how much pressure to apply when tamping them in the portafilter. An automatic machine doesn’t require any expertise. Once you understand how to grind your beans and pull a quality shot, though, it’s like second nature.

Some machines need you to prime the pump, or rather, the boiler. It’s a good habit to get into and only needs doing when you haven’t used the machine in a while. Self-priming machines are more convenient and more hands-off than others.

It’s also important to know what sort of maintenance your espresso maker needs. In our test, we cleaned each machine according to the manufacturer’s suggestions and noted how difficult it was. That factored into our final rankings.

Little details, such as a removable cup tray or adjustable grouphead that allows for bigger cups, are important to consider. Some machines include a cup-warming tray, which is convenient because espresso cools very quickly. 

A larger water reservoir cuts down on maintenance, and an auto-shutoff is an invaluable safety feature, too. That especially applies on mornings when you’re just not awake enough to remember to turn off the machine.

Safety

The temperature of each espresso machine’s exterior as it brews matters. Most machines become warm to the touch but don't burn. Still, this is something you'll want to be aware of when choosing your espresso maker. A status light that tells you when the machine is on can also help prevent accidental burns, in case you inadvertently press buttons. Makers with an auto shut-off feature receive more credit in our reviews than those without one.

Warranty & Support

Espresso machine warranties vary between one and two years in most cases. We found that the best home espresso makers we tested offer support at least by email, and most of them offer phone customer care. Other manufacturers offer live chat help, too. All the espresso machines we've tested have user manuals you can access online.

Two people reading an instruction manual for an espresso machine

(Image credit: Future)

What accessories can I get for my espresso machine?

The best espresso machines include most of the pieces you need to get started right away. It should be noted, though, that none of the makers we've reviewed include shot glasses. We didn’t score products based on their accessories because these extras don’t make or break the quality of the machine. Also, some of the best cappuccino makers are either super automatic or pod machines that don’t require the extra bits.

Some manufacturers include a pitcher for frothing milk so you can make a cappuccino or mocha right out of the box. The semi-automatic espresso machines include at least one portafilter, but some may include a second one or a pod-adaptable filter. Most makers also come with a tamping tool, and some include a measuring spoon.

A frothy jug of hot milk from an espresso machine

(Image credit: Future)

Can an espresso machine save me money?

These machines make more than just espresso; they can create a variety of coffee drinks. In fact, if you learn to use the features of these machines, you can replace your morning coffee shop stop with a homemade cup for the road.

If you buy lattes at coffee shops regularly, the cost over the course of a year will add up. For example, if you were to buy a cafe latte from Starbucks every workday for a year, it would cost you roughly $1,079.

At the time of this writing, our best choice espresso maker costs around $500. Depending on how you prepare your drinks, you might get dozens of cups from a single bag of coffee. If you drink lattes every day, you’ll see definite savings. You’ll also be thankful you no longer have to wait in the drive-thru or café line.

Guides for coffee lovers: 

The best espresso machines
The best single-cup coffee makers
The best drip coffee machines