The machine came well packed and was clean had no manufacturing or quality issues save for one. The machine was clean and did not exhibit the fingerprints and other manufacturing problems that have been described by others. The only quality issue is the water tank. The cutout for the hoses left the fill line on the front where it not visible. The slot is probably cut out by some minimum wage high school kid only making a couple thousand lire an hour. Or are they on Euros now? This is a non issue, and I honestly didn't know there was a fill line for a couple weeks. Aesthetically, it's a knockout. Looks great on the counter.
As there is a wealth of information available on the Sylvia, I was prepared for the temperature surfing issues. The first shots were a bit sour but with good crema. The first half dozen or so were disposed of after a taste while dialing in the grinder. I had some problems is the first several weeks with the puck sticking to the dispersion screen, and a deep dimple in the puck from the dispersion screen screw.
I purchased a new tamper from Esresso Vivace in Seattle. The Ergo tamper helped me work get my tamp more even. After working on the leveling method of dosing and practicing the tamp, the puck no longer sticks. There is still a dimple from the screw, but only after the shot. It's not present while dry. This was checked by attached a loaded portafilter, and then removeing to check the load.
The La Marzocco basket:
I bought a La Marzocco double basket as I read a post on alt.coffee that that solved some problems with the dimpling of the puck. I found that the La Marzocco is more sensitive to the quantity of coffee. The neck is higher, so if the basket has a light charge the tamper will hit the shoulder of the basket, limiting the amount of force that can be applied to the coffee. I find the Rancilio basket to be more forgiving and to deliver a more consistant tamp with a slightly under filled charge.
I use two methods of temperature surfing: the 'sylvia cheat' described by Mark Prince on www.coffeekid.com, and the method described by Greg Scace on alt.coffee titled “Temperature study of my Sylvia (looong)”. You can find this by searching on Google. With the 'cheat' method I'm producing pretty good espresso, slightly bitter on the top with good richness down further in the shot. As I'm not home roasting and my beans are typically two days old when I get them I'm not hoping for much more at this time. I have recently upgraded my grinder to an Innova (got one the first brushed aluminum models) which has improved the quality.
With the method described by Greg Scace, you start with a warmed up Sylvia and bleed the boiler via the wand with the hot water switch on until the boiler light comes on. Then you count down and start your shot after a set amount of time. That amount of time varies by machine, approximately 25-50 seconds. The only problem described in the original article was that you never new where you were starting in the heat cycle when you bled the boiler. You might get six ounces of water run through the system, or you might get two ounces. Each case produces a different heat profile. I haven't wired my system with a thermocouple (then my wife would know I've gone off the deep end instead of suspecting it), but I have found by adding an additional bleeding of the boiler before starting the count, there are a very consistant amount of water on the second bleeding. This tells me that the heat profile will be very consistent. Someone may have already developed this or described it, but my version goes like this.
1) Wait until the Sylvia is hot. When the spout on the portafilter burns my finger, it's ready.
2) Grind, dose and tamp the shot, and lock in the portafilter. ( I know, this may be a bit early, but I'm not that fast).
3) Bleed the boiler through the steam wand with the hot water switch on until the light comes on.
4) When the boiler light goes off, start the second bleeding. When the boiler light goes on, simultaneously shut off the hot water switch and start the timer. For a 40 second delay I set my count down timer to 1:05.
5) Turn off the steam wand, and get ready to start the shot.
6) When the timer hits 25 seconds, start the shot.
7) When the timer goes off, stop the shot.
I have found that this produces very consistant results.
Everything I know about steaming milk I learned from coffeekid.com, David Schommer's articles Lucidcafe.com, and from practice. My micro-foam isn't bad (It pours, no spooning required), but my latte art sucks. Much to my five year-olds chagrin, I still can't pour a heart. Guess I'll have to buy a book. Anyway, this machine can do it. I haven't benchmarked it, but 8-10 oz. of milk steams in about a minute.
Follow up note: I find that if I take my time with the bleeding, and wait an additional 15-20 seconds between steps, that the steam pressure is enourmous. And the quality of the foam is better.
I use Cleancaf, and run it through about every two weeks. I purchased a backflushing insert, but haven't used it yet. Still looking from some affirmation from other users that it's not going to blow my Sylvia up, and that it's needed.
Follow up: I finally backflushed the machine. I read what I could find, and then played it by 'ear'. Running the pump with the backflush insert installed for 3-seconds sounded fine. It sounded less labored than with a dose that is ground too fine. And quite a bit of sludge came out. I followed the directions on the Urnex container, except for how long I ran the pump. I'm now backflushing weekly.
A general suggestion regarding the steam valve. I have a couple friends who think you need to tighten valves with all your might so they don't leak. I used to be a divemaster, and we always pushed the idea of using two fingers. Lot's of force cuts a valve seat, and after awhile, it won't seal any more. This one seems to hiss for a couple seconds after closing it. Resist the temptation close it with a lot of force. I read a complaint about the wand dripping on the counter. It rotates nicely so it will drip in the drip pan. I haven't noticed any overnight dripping.
I love this machine. It's not perfect, but it rewards attention. It suits my nature. I like to shift my own gears. I cook most everything from scratch. And I like having control over my own shots. Seeing crema an inch thick in the shot glass is it's own reward. If you're looking for automation, buy something else. If you like to work on your technique, this could be the machine for you.
The above mentioned temperature surfing techniques were described by Mark Prince, Greg Scace on alt.coffee, and Randy Glass on "Espresso, my Espresso", his internet novelette. This and other links were found on coffeekid.com. I didn't invent the methods, just used and added my $0.02.