or, "Why Some Espresso Machines Cost More Than Others
In my business Coffee for Connoisseurs (website), I sell 4 domestic espresso machines: the Imat Junior, the Imat Napoletana, the Rancilio Silvia and the Solis SL90. Because I'm an "Internet Only" coffee retailer, I tend to regard machines as interesting devices for consuming coffee, rather than big ticket items with big markups. My profits on any machine sale might pay for a weeks' petrol...just.
The result is that I don't really have a bias towards any of the machines I sell, since they all offer about the same small profit after the government gets its slice. Many of the enquiries I get as to which machine to buy result in recommendations to check out machines I don't sell at all, such as superautomatics, and "get back to me for the coffee." But there are still potential customers who want to buy their single group non-automatic domestic machine from me. My problem is that they want me to recommend which unit to buy, and I'm not that fussed, as long as the customer is happy with their machine and using my coffee.
Internet retailing in Australia means that every machine I sell is "torture tested" for 24 hours before shipping; when your customer can be 5000 km distant from you, you don't want returns for faulty machines. It also means that I'm very familiar with the units and their capabilities, which helps me to ask the questions and provide the explanations that sort out (a) what the customer needs and (b) what the customer wants... and they are not always the same thing.
Probably the most difficult thing to explain over the phone or by email is why the Junior is only $500 (in round numbers) and the Silvia is $750. The Solis is easy (the electronics and gadgetry, plus Swiss Franc vs. Australian Peso) and the Napoletana has the grinder, so that's an easy one too. The Junior vs. the Silvia is a LOT harder to explain without actually seeing the machines, so I'm usually reduced to the "weight of metal" explanation, "Uhhrr..the Junior weighs 8kg and is built to do the best job for the price, the Silvia weighs 14kg and is built like a tank."
Below is a photo essay of the comparison between the machines (done using a Napoletana, but internally the non-grinder bits of the Napoletana and Junior are identical.) This probably won't be all that interesting to the 110v North American part of the world, but for the 240v Australians, Asians and Europeans it shows where the money goes. In Europe the Junior and Napoletana are available online from Gemme (website), and Nemo (website).
Napoletana Boiler, Front View: Same boiler and element sizes and shapes as the Silvia, but note the use of teflon tubing.
Rancilio Silvia Boiler, Front View: Similar to the Napoletana, but uses copper tubing in places where the other unit uses teflon.
Napoletana Boiler, Rear View: Note connections controls and also the Ulka (red) pump.
Rancilio Silvia Boiler, Rear View: The Silvia uses the same Ulka pump as the Napoletana.
Napoletana Grouphead Area This group is formed in the base of the boiler, something also done in most Gaggia and Saeco models. The showerscreen is perforated and screwed directly to the boiler base. Screen diameter is the same as the Silvia's.
Rancilio Silvia Grouphead Quite different from the other model, the Silvia's grouphead is a separate assembly bolted to the side of the boiler, and formed from a massive chunk of brass. The showerscreen is stainless steel mesh and screwed to the water distribution valve.
Napoletana Drip Tray Assembly Features a steel screen up top that is fairly thin, and a black plastic reservoir area. Holds 1300ml.
Silvia Drip Tray Assembly Thick stainless steel used for both screen and reservoir. The Silvia's drip tray holds 600ml.
Portafilters: The Silvia (on the right) has a heavy plated brass portafilter which fits commercial Rancilio machines, and uses commercial 58mm filter baskets with rolled edges. The Napoletana portafilter (on the left) is plated brass, but lighter than the Silvia, and uses cheaper pressed 57mm filter baskets with straight edges.
In terms of brewing ability both machines will produce an espresso that is better than 99% of commercial operators can manage, given good beans and a well trained owner, but the espressos from the Silvia are slightly sweeter and fuller bodied than those from the Napoletana. Add milk and the difference is undetectable to my palate.
So there you have it. I suspect that the Silvia has been built "down" from Rancilio's commercial machines, using common parts wherever possible, while the Napoletana/Junior machines have been built "up" by Quaha using top quality "domestic" parts. In both machines there is no doubt that you are getting good value and performance for your money, so the buying decision is a bit like buying a car; are you happy with a Mazda or a Mercedes?