What to expect from an espresso machine under $500?
If you’re thinking about buying an espresso machine for under $500, it helps to have an understanding of what features you should expect and which ones really only come with much more expensive machines.
At this price point, you can expect an espresso machine to have a milk frother. In fact, four of our out picks include one.
Being about to produce enough pressure is really important, too, because the force of the water passing through the grounds is what makes an espresso an espresso. You need at least bars of pressure. Each of these produces 15 bars or more.
There are some features that are nice to have but that you won’t commonly find on machines under $500. A lot of the more expensive machines have an integrated bean grinder. While you’ll find one on our Editor’s Pick, the De’Longhi ESAM3300 Magnifica, it’s not something that comes standard.
Another thing that’s becoming more and more prevalent is smart espresso machines that connect to your smartphone or tablet via a Bluetooth connection. This is something you typically only find on higher-end models but one of our picks, the Breville Nespresso Expert, is equipped with this smart technology.
Features to consider while choosing an espresso machine
There are some things to think about when deciding which is the right espresso machine for you. Let’s take a look at some key features.
Type: semi-automatic vs super-automatic
One of the main things to look for is whether the machine is semi-automatic or super automatic, especially if you’ve never made espresso before.
Semi-automatic machines feature a boiler, portafilter, and extraction switch that is operated by the user. While just about everything is automated, you still get to control the extraction time. Usually, this is done by selecting a preset but some machines have programmable buttons that give you a little more direct control.
Super-automatic machines do everything for you. All you have to do is push a button and they’ll grind the beans then tamp and brew your coffee for you. While some of our picks, like the Nespresso Lattissima Plus by De’Longhi, might seem like they do it all, you still have to load the capsule into the machine so they’re not truly super-automatic.
Brew temperature and water pressure
We mentioned pressure earlier but it’s worth repeating. Using pressure to force hot water through beans is what makes an espresso an espresso. You’ll need at least 9 bars of pressure is needed to create enough force to extract flavor from the beans.
Temperature is really important, too. Because so much heat is lost during brewing and as the espresso passes through the air into a cup, the machine has to be able to get up to about 190 degrees. By the time the espresso is ready to drink, it’s down to about 160 degrees. So, if the machine can’t quite get as hot as 190 degrees, your espresso is always going to be a little too cold when it hits your cup. Sometimes, this can require pre-heating the machine or doing a brew with only water.
A milk frother adds a lot of versatility to an espresso machine because everything you need to make lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, an Americanos is right onboard.
While some machines have an automatic steamer that froths and layers just the right amount of mil for you, you can find machines that use a traditional steam wand like the Breville Duo Temp Pro.
While it might take a few tries to get right, a traditional wand offers a true hands-on experience and gives you an opportunity to try making foam art for a true coffeehouse experience.
Maintenance and ease of cleaning
Some of these machines make cleanup really easy. Removable drip trays, water tanks, and dishwasher-safe parts are all really convenient things to look for.
Another really useful feature is cleaning and maintenance indicators. For example, the De’Longhi ESAM3300 Magnifica has a decalcification indicator to let you know when it’s time to clean the inside of the machine.
Warranties are really important, especially with a product like this. There are a lot of electronic and moving parts which means there are a lot of opportunities for something to go wrong. Luckily, all of our picks are covered with a 1-year limited warranty, except for the Nespresso Expert which is covered for 2 years.
Tips on making perfect espresso
- First, use good, fresh coffee. While some of our picks, like the Nespresso CitiZ C111, require you to use their prefilled capsules, there is a lot to choose from and the quality is excellent.
- A clean machine is important. For example, if the De’Longhi ESAM3300 Magnifica’s light for decalcification is on, you can’t really expect it to make a great espresso.
- Pre-heat. We mentioned how important temperature is and this is one way to make sure the machine gets it right.
- Use filtered water if possible. Not only will this give you better tasting coffee, but it’s also easier on the machine.