The Astra Pro has a somewhat unique learning curve, but rewards persistence with consistent excellence.
Positive Product Points
A nice, heavy (apx. 45 lbs) machine with a commercial look and feel. It has produced reliably excellent espresso during the past 2 years, most notable for the extremely thick, dark crema. Exceptional steaming capability and larger-than-average (about 2.6 liters) water capacity. Made in the Los Angeles area, so access to the manufacturer is a bit easier than many brands, particularly if you live in California.
Negative Product Points
Takes a while to warm up - at least 20 minutes, possibly more. Uses a "self-tamping" system which you may or may not care for, particulary as it does take a while to master. Can get very hot if left on for a while - keep this one out of the reach of small children and pets.
After struggling with three other espresso machines, this was my first heavy-duty, "prosumer" grade product. It arrived from the EBay seller in near-mint condition, which left me wondering why they had sold it after only a year or so of use. My best guess is because of the machine's "self-tamping" feature, which eliminates the need for conventional tamping, but requires the user to master the art of smoothing the grounds in the basket without compressing them (even minimally) and locking the basket into the group head without disturbing the grounds. After I got up to speed with this process I've had extremely excellent, consistent results. However, you will find yourself cleaning out the group head with a brush very regularly - failure to do so will result in leakage around the gasket and dripping. I've been very happy with this machine, but can see why a caterer might hate it.
Once I found the right espresso beans (in my case, Sweet Maria's Moka Kadir Espresso Blend), worked out the best roast (Full City), and dialed in the grind, the shots were amazing. Rich body and thick, dark crema that exceeds anything I can get at commercial coffee shops around here. And aside from the occasional first shot that is less than 100%, I've found it to be very consistent. I now greatly regret having spent several years wasting my time trying to get a decent product out of lesser machines.
Bought on EBay for $850. It arrived without any documentation, but Astra was very helpful when I called them.