Make no mistake: an espresso maker is the most time-consuming and fiddly way to make coffee at home. But for those that are willing to put in the effort, the reward is the best coffee you're likely to make yourself.
Espresso makers tend to be expensive – much more so than filter or pod coffee machines. Still, they are less pricey than a bean-to-cup machine and take up considerably less space on your kitchen counter. They are also some of the most attractive small appliances around.
If you don't know your portafilter from your group head, have a look at our guide after the chart to familiarise yourself with features and make sure that the machine you settle on meets your needs.
But if you're not sure that an espresso maker is right for you and you'd like to see the pros and cons of different types of coffee maker – filter, espresso, pod or bean-to-cup – we've got advice.
Otherwise, read on to browse our favourite espresso makers.
Best espresso machine reviews
Breville Barista Max - Inbuilt conical burr grinder
- All-in-one solution
- High-quality grinder
- Solidly built
- Massive kitchen counter footprint
If you enjoy using a portafilter, tamping and getting your espresso just right, but you want to grind the beans yourself, the Barista Max could be just what you're looking for.
It's a great alternative to a bean-to-cup machine, allowing for all the hands-on personalisation of an espresso machine but with an inbuilt conical burr grinder that has 30 settings. What's really compelling is the price point: it's around the same price as competing espresso machines, none of which feature a grinder.
It's well designed, with handy features such as the Tap & Go Grinding Cradle, a half hoop that you stick the portafilter into. Press down, the grinder starts and coffee is deposited right into the basket. A light even comes on to illuminate the process.
On the negative side, it has a huge countertop footprint and the plastic water tank is less than attractive – but luckily hidden at the back of the appliance.
Read our full Breville Barista Max VCF126 review
Sage Bambino - Best compact machine
- Fast heating
- Adjustable coffee volume
This espresso maker is attractive, compact and feature-filled. It has an inbuilt steam wand, hot water dispenser and adjustable automatic settings for brewing one and two cups of espresso.
It comes with both single and double-walled portafilter baskets for one and two cups, meaning that the machine can be used equally by baristas-in-training who want to experiment to get the perfect shot and those who just want a decently brewed coffee without too much fuss.
It's tall enough to dispense straight into a mug, has a generous drip tray with a bright red float and enough space on top to warm two cups. There are plenty of nice design features, like the handle on top of the water tank that allows you to easily lift it out, and the removable water filter. Plus, it comes with all the accessories you'll need, including a stainless steel milk jug.
Most importantly, it has an impressive build quality and it's easy to use.
Read our full Sage Bambino review
Smeg Espresso Coffee Maker - Most stylish
- Use with ESE pods or ground coffee
- Narrow & compact
- Easy to use
- Plastic build
- Flimsy tamper/ scoop
Smeg's espresso maker is in the brand's characteristic retro design: all curves and chrome accents. And it is a thing of beauty. However, it is almost entirely clad in shiny plastic, while other machines have a stainless steel exterior.
It's light, narrow and compact, so you'll easily find a spot for it on your countertop. It's easy to use, with a single button operation, but you can modify water temperature, water volume and adjust for water hardness.
It also has an integral milk wand/hot water dispenser. The machine heats quickly and you can move between coffee making and steaming milk without waiting for it to cool down.
However, it only comes with the most basic accessories: a portafilter, one and two cup baskets and a plastic tamper/scoop, which is a disappointment at this price point.
It comes in a range of colours but you may have to shop around the find the one you want. It's worth it, as its lovely design is why you're paying a premium.
Read our full Smeg ECF01 Espresso Coffee Maker review
Breville Bijou - Best budget-friendly choice
- Integral steam wand
- Good value for money
- Steep learning curve
- Manual dispensing
- Time-consuming to make several coffees
The very compact Bijou would make a good entry-level machine for would-be baristas who want to learn the art of espresso making. It's not such a great option for people who just want to make a quick coffee.
It's a manual dispensing machine, and the instruction manual provides little in the way of advice on volume, dispensing time or tamping. So if you buy, you need to be prepared to research how to use it and to experiment with the machine.
It comes with a portafilter, two double walled baskets (for one and two cup brewing) and a scoop/tamper but you'll need to provide your own milk jug.
The budget price becomes apparent in the fact that it takes several minutes to warm up and that it needs time to cool down between using the steam wand and dispensing coffee. This means that making several coffees at once can take some time.
Read our full Breville Bijou Espresso Machine (VCF149) review
Swan Retro Espresso Machine - Retro style for less
- Retro design
- Various colour options
- Powerful, adjustable steam wand
- Manual dispense
- Additional warming stage
- Plasticky build
Swan's retro espresso machine is beautifully designed and comes in nine colour options. If you like the look of Smeg appliances but not their price tags, this is a budget-friendly alternative.
It's compatible with ground coffee and ESE pods and has a powerful integral steam wand that's adjustable, using a dial on the front of the appliance.
But as you might expect at this price point, you'll need to make a couple of compromises. First of all, it's a manual dispense, which means there are no pre-set dispensing volumes to rely on. You'll have to work it out by trial and error, although the manual is helpful.
But perhaps more importantly, there's an additional warming stage in the coffee-making process, meaning that an already fiddly and time-consuming operation takes even longer.
But if the look of your appliances is important to you (and you can opt to match everything from your mugs to your dishwasher in Swan's retro range) and price is a sticking point, this is one to consider.
Read our full Swan Retro Espresso Machine review
Dualit 3-in-1 - Most versatile
- Works with ground coffee, ESE pods, NX & Nespresso capsules
- Lightweight, slightly flimsy build
- Capsules must be pierced before use
Not only does this machine function as an espresso machine, using ground coffee but it's also compatible with ESE pods, NX and Nespresso capsules, making it a good choice for a busy household that wants a quick coffee in the morning but the option of a good espresso on the weekend.
And it does produce a good espresso – reliably so. It heats quickly, using Thermoblock technology, has a cup warming space on top and a drip tray with a float.
It's an attractive machine, with a stainless steel exterior. On the negative size, it's lightweight and largely made of plastic and does not sit solidly when attaching the portafilter. Plus, it can't fit a full-sized mug under the dispenser. It's also very noisy when in use.
Read our full Dualit DCM2X 3-in-1 espresso machine review
What to look for in an espresso maker
As with any coffee machine, before you settle on a particular appliance, check out your kitchen counter space. An espresso machine needs a dedicated spot on your kitchen counter. They're not always light or easy to move and, factoring in the drip tray and coffee grounds around the machine, moving one could create a lot of mess.
Measure the counter space you have free and check the height of your overhead cabinets to give you the rough dimensions of space you could spare for an espresso maker.
Most espresso makers will allow you to dispense both a one and two cup volume.
You'll also likely be able to adjust the volume of water dispensed. But what to look out for here is whether you have complete manual control (which equates to no guidance) or if you're able to modify an existing dispensing volume.
Most espresso makers come with an integral steam wand, which will allow you to heat and texturise milk for cappuccinos and lattes. Usually, the steam wand will also dispense hot water for longer coffees.
Some may also come with a stainless steel milk jug.
The portafilter is the long-handled device that the basket sits in. Fill the basket with ground coffee, tamp it down and insert it into the group head, which will dispense your coffee. Sound easy? Getting the right amount of coffee, at the right fineness and giving it the right amount of tamping is key to getting a great espresso.
Portafilter baskets come in two sizes: single and double shot. But there are also two different types: double and single walled baskets.
Double walled baskets are also called pressurised baskets. These are better for beginner baristas or for people looking to make a drinkable espresso without having to spend too much time getting the perfect grind and dispensing time. The increased amount of pressure improves the consistency of the coffee and means you can use a less consistent grind of coffee.
A single walled basket is the home barista's choice. There's no safety net while brewing, so you have to create pressure by getting the fineness, dispensing time and tamping absolutely right.
The Sage Bambino comes with both types of portafilter basket, so it's a good choice for households where only one person is interested in experimenting with espresso brewing.
Espresso machines can't usually grind their own beans. You'll need to use ground coffee in them. However, there are a few exceptions, such as the Breville Barista Max, which has an integral conical burr grinder.
A pressure gauge is another nice-to-have feature in a home espresso machine, but very few machines at the affordable end of the market have one. You can't modify the pressure on an espresso machine but the gauge can tell you if your machine is starting to fail.
You may also be able to use the gauge to let you know if your grind is correct. Lower pressure during brewing could indicate that your coffee is too finely ground.
Most espresso machines will come with a tamper, a handy little tool you use to compress the coffee in the basket. More budget-friendly appliances will often come with a single plastic tool, with a scoop on one end and a tamper on the other. Espresso aficionados may want to invest in a higher quality tamper, often made of solid wood and stainless steel.
As well as taking ground coffee, some espresso machines take ESE (easy serve espresso) pods. These are like teabags but for coffee: pre-filled, perforated bags. They won't provide as delicious a cup as fresh ground beans but they have the advantage of being consistent, quick and clean to use. The Dualit 3-in-1 coffee machine not only takes ESE pods but Nespresso capsules as well.