Probably the best single boiler machine on the market. And it's a helluva deal in the US.
Positive Product Points
Very robust machine that makes really good espresso. Excellent temperature stability.
Negative Product Points
Manual sucks, but retailers have stepped up to da plate.
In my opinion, Silvia is the best single boiler machine on the market and she is a helluva good deal.
Sivia is very robust and built like a tank. This is very good because the heavy brass boiler and grouphead (gh) has lots of thermal mass to keep the temperature constant. And constant, consistent temperature is key to getting a good shot time after time. The guts are simple and easy to get around if you're a tinkerer. As I understand it, the guts are based to some degree on Rancilio's commercial parts. For instance, the commercial portafilter fits right up, etc. Silvia posesses a pressure relief valve that releases the pressure behind the puck when you stop brewing - a feature that not all home machines posess. This is nice in that you don't go blasting grounds all over the kitchen when you take the portafilter off. The drip tray is sufficiently large and easy to remove for cleaning. The dispersion screen is easy to service. Silvia has a large enough water tank for her intended use. Filling is thru the top and doesn't involve any side doors or silly screw caps. Rancilio makes / sells a water softener for use in its professional machines that plugs right into the silvia's inlet tube and can be used to reduce boiler scaling. The pump is an UKLA vibratory pump which produces more than enough pressure and will quickly show you if your grinder is up to espresso production or not. Better budget for a good grinder such as a Randilio Rocky.
I am pretty fortunate in that my professional expertise is in a field that relies heavily on temperature measurement and control. So it was natural that I quantify the temperature control and stability of my Silvia - especially in light of the stuff that I've read on the net from David Schomer and others about the need for tight control in order to get good shots time after time. I found that the Silvia gives very stable temperatures during the course of a shot (within 2 degrees F). This is one of the single biggest reasons that you should buy a Silvia. Such stability is inherent to the design of the machine and crappy stability would be a complete showstopper. As it is, with a little understanding of how the heating cycle works, you can crank out some impressive shots that blow away nearly all cafes and you can do it time after time.
Now to quickly discuss the Silvia's heating cycle: Like most single boiler machines, Silvia uses a thermoswitch to turn the heating element on or off. Such a switch is called a dead band controller because there is a permissible temperature range (the dead band) between when the heater comes on (low temperature limit) and when it shuts off at the upper temperature limit. The temperature cycling that occurs is easily visible to the user once the machine is warmed up. Just look at the heater light on the front. By timing the beginning of your shot from when the heaterlight first comes on you can get amazing shot to shot repeatability with Silvia. The technique is easy and it's described in detail at Randy G's site:
Armed with this technique, you can easily outperform many machines that cost more than twice the cost of the Silvia.
Steaming capability is good. The boiler temperature limit in steaming mode is high enough to produce about 1.5 atmosphere's of pressure. The boiler size is enough to froth about 6 oz of milk at a time. This is sufficient to make single drinks, which is the intended use for the machine, but means that you have to let it recover temperature between frothings if you intend to do multiple drinks at a time. I don't view this as a limitation. Silvia is after all a single boiler machine that is intended for home use in an environment where one to several coffee drinks will be made in a session.
I have used my Silvia for a year now, and I've pretty much mastered using her. She has some limitations in that she is a single boiler machine. This means that she can not steam and brew simultaneously. However, such capability costs hundreds of dollars more than the price of a Silvia, so you should evaluate how important that is to you. Simultaneous steaming / brewing should not be an issue for one who primarily drinks straight espresso and lack of such capability is not too much bother if one is only making one milk based drink at a time. Large dinner parties though......
On the other hand, i doubt that many machines that can simultaneously brew and steam have the temperature stability of the Silvia. Such machines are usually designed for more or less continuous service and depend on constant throughput to iron out temperature non uniformities. If I were in the market for a home espresso machine, I would first assess whether or not I wanted to play barrista for large dinner parties on a regular basis. If I did, then I would pony up the bucks for a good heat exchanger machine like a Wega MiniNova with an E-61 grouphead. If my intended use was to make exquisite espresso for myself, spouse / significant other (or whoever else you wanted to hugely impress), I'd get a Silvia wighout any hesitation.
Dunno why I never filled this section out, but now that it's October 2005 I oughtta give some feedback on 1st Line and their subsequent stellar customer service. I've now had a long relationship with 1st Line as a customer (since 2000) and they kick some major butt. They answer my questions, find me parts when I need em, and they've given great service to me and all of my friends that I've sent their way. First class outfit and very nice folks!!! One thing to keep in mind when buying this type of stuff is that after sales support is gonna be needed, in terms of parts years down the road, and in terms of help getting going - particularly if you're new at this. Buy from someone who has a track record for excellent after sales support.
One Year Followup
Actually this is a 5 year followup by now. I've gone down the coffee road pretty far since I bought my Silvia. I still have her, but I also have a two-group LaMarzocco Linea, several grinders, a 1-group Astra, a small shop roaster, and I've started a small company called Espresso Research, LLC that makes temperature measurement equipment for espresso machines (the Thermofilter). I still have a day job. Anyhoo, that Silvia still produces a pretty damn good cup. I don't use her much these days, but I can't bring myself to sell her. She has one of the first PID temperature control installatiions (2001), adjustable brew pressure control, and she embodies a little bit of coffee history in that she inspired a lot of folks to hot rod their machines. She still Rox! I still recommend her at this price point.