I've had a small semi-automatic pump machine for years. With a good grinder and attention to detail, I could coax nice shots from it. Lately though I had been growing weary of the routine. I'd started thinking about my next espresso machine but never really imagined I could afford or would want a super automatic. Fast forward to December, I walked into my local Starbucks and noticed the DeLonghi Magnifica had been marked down from $999 to $599. A few days later, Starbucks put on a pre-Christmas sale, taking 20% off most merchandise including brewers. I already had a gold card, which meant another 10% off. A discount of nearly 60% got my attention. While still pricey, it was definitely within reason. I mulled it over a few days, checked online reviews (generally favorable) and decided to pull the trigger.
When I went back to buy, the store gave me a choice of two models--the Magnifica and the $200 more expensive Rialto with an automated milk frothing pitcher. After a bit of hemming and hawing, I went for the Rialto thinking that my better half who normally can't be bothered with the complications of machines might appreciate the one-button cappuccino option. It wasn't to be though. I plugged in the machine and began the setup process. The warm up took a long time. Five minutes easily. Then the display read General Alarm and it shut down. The manual said the error meant the internals were very dirty. Not likely with a brand new machine that didn't even have beans in the hopper. I called the customer service number with a bit of trepidation--maybe I've dealt with too many outsourced, overseas call centers of late. However, I was surprised to be connected quickly with a very pleasant young woman who turned out to be in Iowa. She grasped the issue immediately and walked me through a bit of troubleshooting. The General Alarm message wouldn't clear so she advised me to return the unit to Starbucks. DeLonghi makes a big deal about "white glove" service with its super automatic machines and I have to say it's deserved. This cheerful. competent rep turned what could have been a very bad situation into if not a celebration at least one that was resolved fast.
Another reason I wasn't furious about the bum machine is that I had done some after-the-fact research and was feeling a twinge of buyer's remorse. For one thing, I questioned whether I really should have spent the money for the auto frother. And I discovered that DeLonghi had updated the line with double boilers, stainless steel piping and a quieter grinder. Yet, the machine I brought home was from the previous generation. It was model number EAM4500. I learned from delonghi-espresso.com that the updated machines all carried model numbers beginning with ESAM. (The added S for stainless, perhaps?) I went back to the store hoping I could exchange for a newer ESAM series.
That's exactly what happened. The Rialto EAM4500 I originally bought was the last they had in stock so we swapped it for a Magnifica ESAM4400 and a $200 refund. This new machine's setup was quick and smooth. Less than five minutes after placing it on the counter, I was pulling shots.
In the weeks since I've been through about three pounds of beans. I am ecstatic with the Magnifica because of its ease of use and consistently great shots. True, I did occasionally get superior shots with my semi-automatic when the ambient humidity, grind, hand-measured dose and hand tamp all aligned just so. But those elements never came together for the daily 6:00 AM cappuccino. Now I've got the Magnifica programmed to turn itself on at 5;40, allowing 20 minutes for the cups to warm. I stumble downstairs, steam some milk and punch the double shot button. Easy. Plus only the frothing pitcher and cup to clean up.
Maintenance is equally simple. The unit keeps track of the number and size of shots pulled then prompts you to empty the used grinds bin before it overflows. You access the bin by opening the front door and removing the drip tray. The bin sits in a recess on the tray's left side. Conveniently, the drip tray is large enough that it only needs to be emptied when grounds bin is. The brew unit comes out when you press two tabs then you can rinse it under running water.
Since making my purchase, I've done still more research and realized that DeLonghi has a broad line up of super automatic machines. As far as I can tell, all have the same espresso-brewer internals. The differences are in the control interface (analog vs. digital), cabinet design (shape and color variations; plastic vs. stainless steel) and milk frothing (manual vs. auto). Meaning the ESAM3300 (analog, silver plastic and manual frother) retailing for $799 should pull shots equal to the Gran Dama ESAM6600 (digital, stainless steel and auto frother) that goes for $2500. See delonghi-espresso.com for a decent overview of the range.
I don't regret saving the $200 and going with the manual frother. The included frothing aid actually works (unlike others I've tried). Though I've discovered two tricks to getting consistently velvety foam with it. First, it has a molded line about a quarter of the way from the top. Keep the milk level as close to that line as possible without going over. Second, I get best results by tilting the pitcher at a 45 degree angle and keeping it still. I've seen others report the need to swirl and bang. Holding that line and tilting work best for me.
Overall, I'm thrilled with my purchase. The Magnifica cranks out excellent shots, one after another.