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the first look - rancilio silvia
Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: June 29, 2007
First Look rating: 8.8
feedback: (63) comments | read | write
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With this latest version of the Rancilio Silvia, the nearly 10th anniversary model (some refer to this unit as Silvia Version 2.2 - and who knows - maybe Rancilio has some other plans for a 10th Anniversary model, which would be over the coming winter), I decided it was time to revisit the machine and give a whole new perspective from someone who owned a Gen1 Silvia way back when, but hasn't used one in nearly seven years. This First Look will give an overview of the machine, some history and detail on what the most recent changes are, and the Detailed Review will really put the machine to the test and see if today's $550 $595 (the price went up again July 1, 2007) Silvia is worth as much as 1998's $350 Silvia was.

Out of the Box

The new Rancilio Silvia looks much like the Silvia of old, at least when you get the box. Typically it ships "double boxed" and well packed inside, and should arrive safely. The box is not your typical Krups or Capresso "Walmart Friendly" design with splashy graphics and colours. Ours was cardboard brown with the Rancilio logo plastered in black on several sides, including some information about serial numbers and versions. And it's hard to miss the big green and white "pod adaptable" graphic on the sides.

Inside the box is a well packed machine complete with Rancilio's commercial portafilter, single and double filter baskets, measuring scoop, throwaway plastic tamper, and Rancilio's product manual.

In the past, Rancilio has supplied different portafilters on their Silvias - from the Teflon (brown) coated quasi-pro model the original units came with, to the chrome and brass quasi-pro (Silvia-spec) model of the early 2000s, to the full blown commercial portafilter today - the same one they ship with their Classe machines.

Also included is a fairly technical manual, and a vast improvement over how things were back in 1999, when they only included Italian instructions in the box. In fact, I managed to procure a rather complex and file-corrupt Microsoft Publisher (circa Windows 95 style) version of the manual in English back in 1999 and after a lot of editing, made a PDF of it. I remember it well - the .pub file would crash about every time I changed page position - quite the nightmare! For a few years, this was the only "English" version of the manual available to buyers - I put my converted PDF online in various places and people (and companies) started to download it. If you search for the Silvia manual in PDF form today online, you'll still find this document - I put a slight easter egg in the document properties - you'll find my name and "CoffeeKid.com" in there (as a funny aside, for several years Rancilio's own website had the PDF - the one I made - on their website as a download!). Thankfully, you don't have to rely on my crudely cobbled pdf for instructions - Rancilio's manual is a good one.

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Rancilio Box
Not much for the Walmart shelves; this is serious business (except for that pod graphic!)
Manuals
The manuals and other documentation are a huge improvement over the circa 1999 offerings.
OMG! Logo!
I didn't realise until this photo moment that the Silvia had a logo plate on the back of the machine as well as the front. Nice!
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Silvia Stuff
Pretty much everything that comes with the machine...
Silvia Unwrapped
Here's the machine with the protective plastic on the drip tray and portafilter... but where are the filter baskets and stuff?
Ahh - There they are
The filter baskets, scoop, and throwaway tamper were in the reservoir.

Rancilio's Pod adaptor kit wasn't in the box - I got it in a separate mailing. It's not cheap as far as "pod conversions go" - at $80 it's as much as 3 or 4 times more costly than other machines' pod adaptor options - and in the detailed review, I'll be talking extensively about this kit and whether it is worth the money. It includes a chunky piece of brass to replace the Silvia's built in dispersion block (in the grouphead), screens, a filter basket, and some spacers.

In many ways, the Silvia looks the same as my 1990s version did. Brushed stainless steel with a black (painted) central pillar. Same overall silhouette, same overall size, same overall weight. But a keen eye will notice a lot of differences throughout the machine.

One thing that caught my eye right away was something I used to whiney complain about in 1998 - branding on the machine. Back then, the only marking on the machine was a very cheap (and very easy to scratch off) silkscreening type method that put a cursive-letter "Silvia" name on the front panel. Back then, Rancilio had these really cool badges of substance that simply said "Rancilio", and they were found very low-key on all their commercial machines, including the (relatively) inexpensive S24 model. Sure they were plastic, but they meant business, and didn't do it in an ostentatious "let's cover the entire machine with our logo" kind of way.

Well, the current Rancilio Silvia models not only have that very same minimalistic yet strong looking badge on the front panel above the steam knob, but also on the back of the machine! Very cool stuff. If you have an open kitchen concept, you get to proudly show your brand loyalty to the folks sitting in your dining room or living room. And I'm not being facetious here - the Silvia has always been perceived as a machine of substance, and subtle, no-nonsense yet professional branding is always a good thing.

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Silvia Logo
Very prominent, understated, and thank the stars that crappy silkscreen "Miss Silvia" in cursive fonts is long gone.
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Drip Tray Cover
Copied from the look and feel of the Classe models, this drip tray cover is very different from the old Silvias.
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Shallow Pan
The shallow drip tray pan. Rancilio has recently changed this to a lighter weight aluminum pressed pan.
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Portafilter
The same model used on Rancilio's pro machines.

Another big difference I noticed immediately was the drip tray design. It now mimics the drip tray designs found on Rancilio's Classe commercial. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not. One big usability problem I've noticed with this type of tray design (not just on Rancilio pro machines, but other commercial machines as well) is a lot of water leakage off the tray and onto counters. I will be testing this on the Silvia for the detailed review.

Taking a product walk from the top of the machine on down, you see a consistency of "no nonsense, it just works" simplicity in the design of the machine. The top cup warming area is not much different from the original Silvia, save for one really good thing - gone are the rare "torx" style screws holding the top metal plate down; instead, you find four standard Phillips' (star) screws that, once removed, allow tinkerers easy access to the machine's insides.

At the rear of the machine's top is the reservoir lid covering the reservoir itself, which, as far as I can tell, both remain unchanged from the original model. The reservoir is removable and has a notch on the left side to accommodate two tubes - the feed tube and overpressure tube running from the pump and boiler connections. The reservoir is a thick white plastic and holds just shy of 2 litres (about 65 fl.oz).

On the business side of the machine, you see four switches, a boiler status light, the aforementioned badge, and a steam knob. All the switches come from Rancilio's old S-series machines, which means rock solid, long use - no monkeying around here. The central switch powers the machine on or off. To the immediate right of the switch is the boiler-status light. This light goes on when the boiler's heating coil is active, and the light is very visible under most lighting conditions.

On the left side of the Silvia's front panel, the top switch activates the pump for brewing espresso. The middle switch is for hot water, and the bottom left switch puts the machine into steam mode. All three switches have small indicator lights that are a bit more difficult to see under certain fluorescent or halogen lights found in most kitchens.

The grouphead is surrounded by what I thought at first was a chromed metal cowling, but in actual fact it is plastic with a chrome finish. I'm a bit surprised by this, but have been told it's the same cowling found on the commercial machines. There is a red dot on the cowling, and this is an indicator for the furthest position you should tighten the portafilter to. The Silvia's grouphead and portafilter are  designed so that the portafilter handle sits at about the 5 o'clock position when fully tightened (if you were looking straight down at the machine from above).

The portafilter is now the stock model that comes with most commercial Rancilio machines - your standard, high quality chromed brass with a double spout model. The handle is textured dark plastic. I'm not sure if Rancilio is following the industry trend and going to angled handles on their commercial portafilters in the future, but for now, this is a straight handle model.

The grouphead is the beefy, separated design (ie, the boiler and grouphead are two parts, instead of a single unit, like on the Gaggia machines) that is all marine grade brass. It should do a very good job retaining temperature once the machine is fully heated up. It features a removable dispersion screen and block (basically a heavy brass disk designed in part to retain heat), and the standard ring type group gasket, which the user can replace every few years.

The Rancilio Silvia is a "3 way solenoid valve" machine, meaning that a valve immediately opens up after you finish brewing, relieving pressure from the portafilter. This 3 way valve assembly is directly behind the splashplate and can be accessed by removing the two screws holding the plate to the machine.

The drip tray design is the same inside as it was back in 1999 - a shallow metal tray that can be slid out of the machine once you remove the top tray (the part where your cups sit). The cup resting tray has been redesigned recently, featuring a wavy cut pattern under the portafilter, and holes under the steam / hot water wand.

The steam wand is a uni-rotational type and has a rubber sleeve for easy handling. Rancilio has consistently bucked the trend that many competing machine makers have succumbed to - the wand on the Silvia is the "traditional" style, featuring a single hole acorn style tip. No froth aiders for the Silvia - and it is a lesson I wish Gaggia and other companies (hello Saeco? Krups?) would learn.

The machine is built upon a painted iron frame - the black stripes you see up the side of the machine are part of that frame. Because of this, the Silvia is fairly heavy for its size, and extremely sturdy, with very little flex in the machine when you're man-handling the portafilter into place.

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Boiler and OPV Valve
The guts of the Silvia, showing the two piece (bolted) boiler, and the blue arrow pointing to the user-adjustable pressure valve.

The feet are grippy rubber, and better than I remember on my 1.0 version of the Silvia. The machine generally sits still on the counter, even when torquing and cranking the portafilter over to the maximum position.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the other major change inside this new 2.2 version of the Rancilio Silvia - a new tunable OPV valve on the boiler. The problem is, not many normal consumers for this machine will ever use it.

So what is it? It's a controllable pressure valve that lets the machine operator change the brewing pressure exerted on the bed of coffee in the portafilter. It leaves the factory tuned to around 9 bar, but you can dial it up or down depending on your preference. I would not play with this until you have every other variable under control on your espresso machine. OPV valves are advanced stuff. Still, it's a nice addition to a consumer machine, and something rarely found on any machine sold under $1,200. In the past, the Silvia had (if you can believe this) no overpressure system, meaning whatever the pump produced is what you got in the grouphead - 15 bar, anyone? These days thankfully are long gone now.

First Use with the New Rancilio Silvia

As with all new espresso machines, it's very important to read the manual from the manufacturer. Of all the problems you may encounter with a machine when first opening up the box and using it, 95% can be attributed to something you could have avoided by first reading the manual.

The Rancilio Silvia's manual gives good instructions on how to first set up the machine. It does not have an "autofill" feature (though at this pricepoint, some machines do have this feature), which means you have to manually fill the boiler. This is done by filling the reservoir, placing a cup under the steam wand, turning on the machine, opening the steam wand knob, and pressing the middle left switch - the hot water button. Eventually the boiler will fill up, and water will begin flowing out of the wand. It's a good idea to run a fair amount of water through the wand right away - at least half a reservoir's worth, which will clean out any manufacturing residue or dust. Then turn the steam wand knob closed and shut off the hot water switch, and repeat an initial flush, but this time through the grouphead.

Fill the reservoir again, and, after placing a large bowl under the portafilter on the drip tray, run the top left switch until you run about 1 litre of water through the machine. Then let it sit and fully warm up.

Because the machine is so new, I prefer to run about 2 or 3 reservoirs' worth of water through a machine while it is at temperature (this can take about 20 minutes) before even attempting to pull a shot. The good news is, the Silvia's heating element is very powerful - it only takes the machine about 3 minutes or less to go from room temperature to boiler water ready. The bad news is, the Silvia has a lot of brass that also needs to be heated up, and that takes a lot longer than 3 minutes. Usually, the Silvia needs about 20 or 30 minutes for all its parts to get warmed up enough to produce good espresso, but you can trick this somewhat by running enough water through the steam wand and grouphead (and attached portafilter) to get the machine to "cycle" its boiler twice.

What's a cycle? In very short words, it is the time that it takes the machine to go from its lowest acceptable temperature (about 195F) back up to its highest acceptable temperature (usually boiling, or 212F). A thermometer inside the boiler controls this, and in the Detailed Review, I'll go into much greater depth about boiler cycles and how to take advantage of them. Suffice to say, when you see the boiler light (next to the power switch) lit up, the boiler is heating up. When the light is off, the boiler's heating coils aren't heating any longer. Induce this cycle by running enough water through the portafilter to turn the light on, wait for it to turn off, then run more water through the machine to turn the light on again. By the time it turns off, all the brass, the portafilter, the grouphead, you name it will be hot enough to brew good espresso and it should only take about 5 or 6 minutes.

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Single Basket
Normally I'd tell you all to challenge yourself and use the single basket, but the Silvia's single is a *real* challenge!
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Switches
Seriously, uh, serious switches. Well made, good indicators, makes you think you're using a serious piece of equipment. Usability means a lot.
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First Drinks
My first drink builds (after the initial machine flushing and such). Milk texturing is a snap with the Silvia's steam wand.

You can defeat all of this by putting your Silvia on a wall socket timer that you program to turn on in the morning a half hour before you wake up, and turn off in the afternoon or evening.

Pulling shots on the Silvia is very easy. Pulling good shots on the Silvia is also easy, because the machine has enough thermal capabilities and range to handle almost any espresso blend, from the darkest Starbucks roast to the lightest [http://www.terroircoffee.com/store/?&utm_medium=banner&utm_source=coffeegeeks&utm_content=banner1Terroir CoffeeDefining Deadbands and Boiler Cycles for Newbies, or do a search for temperature surfing in our forums, and start your research engines.

I mention this only because I used temperature surfing methods to evaluate the Silvia, much like I use to evaluate any semi-automatic espresso machine that provides me with the tools necessary to temperature surf. What tools are those? It can be as simple as an easy-to-read boiler status light on a machine.

Using our official coffee at CoffeeGeek, Black Cat from Intelligentsia Coffee, and knowing that Black likes temperatures around 199F (as of this testing), I let the Silvia's boiler cycle and ran water through the machine's grouphead for about 3 seconds, or until I saw the water cease flashing to steam, and run clear and hot. I immediately locked in the ready portafilter, and brewed my shots.

Yep - just like the old days. The machine's loud (mainly because of minimal dampening around the vibe pump inside), and you notice an immediate change in the sound once the grouphead and portafilter get up to 9 bars of pressure. But the bottom line with this machine, and the reason why it's still a standards-bearer to this day? It's built like a tank, and can brew superior shots of espresso. Just stay away from the Silvia's single filter basket, unless you really want to challenge yourself. The Silvia's double basket works fine, but I prefer using the Synesso-supplied 14g baskets these days in all the machines I use.

Steaming Milk

Because the boiler is used for both brewing espresso and steaming milk, there's a wait time as you transition it when flipping on the steam switch, located on the lower left side of the front panel on the Silvia. I haven't measured the wait time for this First Look, but from what I could tell, it was similar to my generation 1 Silvia way back when.

If you're a long time reader of mine, you probably remember things I wrote on the advanced "cheating Miss Silvia" articles about getting the most out of steam. In a nutshell, the deadband on the steam thermostat inside the boiler is so wide, that you'll get better performance if you steam while the brew boiler light is still on. This way, as you remove pressure from the boiler (by releasing steam), and use up the water, you 'trick' the boiler into keeping its heating element turned on, thus producing ample steam for frothing milk. In the Detailed Review I'll cover this in depth.

Using the standard method of steaming (ie, wait until the light goes out, then start steaming), the Silvia can take as long as 90 seconds to two minutes to steam enough milk for two cappuccinos. Tricking the machine into keeping the boiler light on can reduce this down to as little as 45 seconds.

There's lots of talk online about what you should do first - steam your milk then brew espresso, or brew the espresso first, then steam the milk. Because a lot of internal parts on the Silvia have changed, I have to wait until the Detailed Review before giving my opinion on this. Basically, if the boiler can transition down to brew temperatures fast enough after steaming (ie, as you refill the boiler with reservoir water running water through the machine's steam wand or grouphead is quick enough to see the water flowing, instead of "flashing" to steam), then I'd always go with steam first, brew later. Many factors come into play when deciding which method to use - how intuitive you are as a home barista, how big the boiler is, how much "headspace" exists in the boiler once you're done steaming (ie, how much reservoir water will be drawn in to refill the boiler to maximum), etc.

I know, for example, that the Solis SL-70, a machine I've long compared to the Silvia, excels in this regard, because the water level in the boiler during steaming was engineered so that, once you're done steaming, refilling the boiler reaches that "sweet spot" where you can brew almost immediately after the boiler is once again maxed out with water. It'll be interesting to see if Rancilio paid this kind of extreme attention to the engineering of their latest incarnation of the Silvia.

Addendum

For your viewing pleasure (or pain, depending on how much you like my narrative and wavey hands), I've done a quick walkthrough video showing shots on the Silvia and how to temperature surf the machine. Have a look.

Wrap Up

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I know I've stepped out of my self-imposed ground rules for First Looks with this article - I know ;) I crossed over from just presenting the product to actually detailing how it works and what my opinion is.

But let's be honest here. Panned or loved (and lots of former Silvia owners pan the machine now!) the Rancilio Silvia is one of those seminal machines. It's an espresso machine that almost every "pro" in the business has heard of, even if they know nothing else about home espresso appliances. It's a machine that, in a very interesting roadmap, contributed to the inclusion of hyper-intensive temperature controls on pro machines like the Synesso Cyncra and La Marzocco GB5. It's a machine that, nearing it's tenth anniversary, has probably had more impact on quality espresso in the N. American home than any other machine out there.

Because of all this, I've always been very wary of doing a First Look on the Silvia, not to mention doing a full blown Detailed Review. She isn't "Miss Silvia" any longer. She's a juggernaut. Is she worthy of the continued praise (or pans) that she gets to this day? In the Detailed Review, I'll try my best to find out.

Rancilio North America supplied us with this test machine, but we'd also like to recommend 1st in Coffee as your potential vendor for the Rancilio Silvia if you decide to buy one. Their service and offerings are always great, and they've been a great supporter of the CoffeeGeek website.

The machine is also available on Amazon through CoffeeGeek's Affiliate Link, and by buying through this method, you help support the CoffeeGeek website.

About the coffee we use for testing

We exclusively use Intelligentsia Coffee for all the product evaluation and testing we do on CoffeeGeek. As one of the United States' best artisan roasters, Intelligentsia features a wide range of ever changing, Direct Trade coffees, limited edition award winning beans, organics and highly respected blends designed for great espresso and brewed cups. They ship throughout North America, so give them a try today.

First Look rating: 8.8
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: June 29, 2007
feedback: (63) comments | read | write
This first look and all its parts are ©2001-2011 CoffeeGeek.com and the first look in part or in whole may NOT be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author or this website. This includes all photographs. For information on reproducing any part of this first look (or any images) or if you would like to purchase a printed version of this first look for commercial or private use, please contact us at info@coffeegeek.com for further details.
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