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the detailed review - isomac zaffiro
Isomac Zaffiro - Out of the Box
Introduction | Overview | Out of the Box | Operation | Performance | Comparisons | Conclusions
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This machine is heavy.

Did I mention this sucker is heavy? This is a heavy machine. It weighs in at over 42 pounds (19 kg) bone dry, and that's just the machine - not the portafilter. The box is big and especially cumbersome. Where companies like Capresso take great pains on designing good packaging inside and out, providing illustrations on the flaps how to remove the machine in a safe manner, the Isomac machine is packed in a non-descript white box (with Isomac and three machine names stamped on the side of it, one with a checkmark), and the internal packaging is basic cardbord forms and some bubble wrap.

It's still good enough for transport, but I'd like to see a bit more care and attention put into the packing materials, and especially attention paid to letting one person remove the machine. I simply couldn't do it myself, and I was afraid to tilt the box upside down to just slide the box off the packing and machine - the way it was packed I was worried this method would damage it.

Chris' Coffee says they double box every shipment going out now, so it should be more secure.

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Isomac's oldschool (left) and newschool (right) portafilter handles. The older ones are much more solid and "confidence building".

Once you manage to get the machine out of the box, you'll find the machine and a secondary box containing your first surprise: it has not one but two portafilters (one with a single spout, one with a double spout), and in the case of my machine they were the "old school" heavyweight bakelite-handle equipped portafilters.

My understanding is that Isomac is shipping the machine with cheaper portafilters these days (cheaper only in the handle design and materials - the chrome and brass portion remains the same). I have some of the newer design portafilters, so I can compare and contrast them. This isn't a huge deal:  but I do have to say that the old school portafilters give me more confidence and have more of a solid feel than the newer design, and in my opinion, add to the value of the machine. I hope Isomac switches back to this older handle design for their Zaffiro, Tea, Venus and Millennium machines.

Another thing I should note is that our machine supplier, Chris' Coffee Service, is replacing any of the cheaper portafilter handles with the more solid older style, under their own initiative. If you are buying this machine from them, you should get the older style automatically.

As you would expect, the portafilter is a standard 58mm filter design, and you are supplied with standard single and double baskets. There was no blind filter in the box, but they may now ship with those special cleaning filters. If they do not, one can be obtained for $5 to $10.

There's also the ubiquitous throwaway cheapo plastic tamper that's too small for the 58mm baskets, so I would recommend the purchase of a quality tamper to go with the machine. Lastly, there's the manual, which is fairly brief and poorly written, but shows you what all the parts do, and how to use them.

Chris' Coffee Service also includes other extras in the box, including a steel backflush disk, water hardness testing strips, older style knobs for the machine (the current shipping Isomacs have ugly knobs that are partially dictated by a UL approval process). They also include detailed instructions, a kilo of Camardo Coffee, and the machine is factory predrilled for two available "plumb in" options.

Rant
We always preach "RTFM" around here (read the freaking manual), and trust me on this - it's the fools of the world who don't give the manual at the very least a brief look. That's right buddy, I'm looking at you, Mr. "I never ask for directions, but will drive around for hours lost to prove my manhood" Manual Discarder - you're a fool. :)

I can tell you from many discussions I've had with vendors of various espresso machines that fully half or more of the "defective machine returns" they get are from people who simply did not read the manual, and did something to the machine that was plainly warned about in the manual. In other cases, they didn't set up the machine properly, again, according to how it was described in the manual. So read the French-for-seal manual! Damnit! (rant over)

With all of this said, the Isomac manuals kinda suck. Isomac needs to spend a grand or two to get someone with a complete grasp on the English language (and a good knowledge of the Isomac machines) and do a complete rewrite of these product manuals. They are okay for basic knowledge of the machine and initial setup, but there's nothing in there that will inspire you or make you especially proud of the purchase, and the mistakes in spelling and grammar are frequent.

Still, READ THE MANUAL. :)

Another bonus when buying the machines from our supplier for this review is that Chris' Coffee Service includes an additional manual that they write for each Isomac Machine. They're not glossy or purty, but they are filled with plain, common sense talk and instructions on how to use the machine. It's a worthwhile addition to the box, and a 'must read'.

First Use

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After RTFM'ing I loaded up the 3 litre reservoir, plugged the machine in and turned it on. I ran the hot water switch (I note that some websites have claimed the Zaffiro doesn't deliver hot water on demand - this is false - it does), and opened the steam valve. The pump primed itself, and she was good to go.

It doesn't take too long to heat up that 800 ml of water; my timings showed about 3 minutes. The manual doesn't specifically say bleed off any false pressure in the boiler, but it's always a good practice. Simply wait for the machine to power up and shut the boiler active light off (the middle light), then run some hot water through the steam wand. This will equalize the pressures inside and out, and get rid of any false readings. This isn't crucial for a single boiler machine, but it is a good habit to get into, and does no harm to the machine.

So you have the machine powered up, any false pressure bled off, and it should be ready to go, right? Not quite mon frere. There's a heap (42lbs worth) of brass, chrome and steel in there that has to be heated up. Usually you have to wait 30 or 40 minutes before the machine's parts are sufficiently heated up to brew a proper shot. And cheating it to get it done quicker isn't very easy. E61 equipped machines aren't like other dual purpose boiler machines, and you can't cheat them like my well publicized Cheating Miss Silvia article shows for most espresso machines. But you can speed up the warming process somewhat, and I'll detail that in my Operation and Maintenance section.

Of course, I couldn't wait for the machine to warm up during my initial use, and I tried pulling shots about at five minutes and 10 minutes after starting the machine. And the shots sucked. So I waited, and about 40 minutes later, I pulled more shots. They were still missing something, a tad too sour, a prime indicator that the brewing temperatures might be too low.

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Zaffiro's adjustable thermostat control. A boon for tweakers, but there are reliability problems.

Which brings me to a really cool thing about the Zaffiro. It may be a dual purpose boiler machine, not a heat exchanger (HX) machine, and because of this, it doesn't feature an easy to adjust pressurestat like most HX machines do. But this isn't any plain jane single boiler machine! It has a easily adjustable thermostat, the first time I've seen this on a single boiler / dual purpose boiler machine.

Remove six screws on the machine, and there she be, on the right side, sticking out about a half inch. Turning the brass bar maybe 5 minutes' equivalent clockwise (as if on a clock), and you ramp up the temps in the boiler by about 5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.3C). Sweeeeet.

I did spend some time fooling with the thermostat adjustment to "dial in" the machine to the temps I wanted. I used up about a half pound of beans in the process. But trust me, I was having fun - this was a singular experience I have not had with any other single boiler machine. I knew I found the sweet spot in temperatures when I got very close to the proverbial "god shot" level.

One note of importance I'll cover more in the performance section. While this tweakability is great, these thermostats have been failing a lot in several machines out there. Mine has failed once during this detailed review process. The vendor does replace them quick, but the QC in Italy is not that great.

I dunno what it is about this machine. Maybe it's the big boiler which gives incredible temperature stability (more so than most HX machines); maybe it's the legendary E61 grouphead, maybe it's the brand new, factory fresh vibe pump that hasn't been abused by me yet, but I had an epiphany: the machine banged out not one, not two, but three near "god shots" in a row. In a ROW! I haven't had this kind of machine success since the time I spent an hour or more on a La Marzocco FB70 machine.

I thought to myself... this is a GOOD thing.

Next Page...

Introduction | Overview | Out of the Box | Operation | Performance | Comparisons | Conclusions
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Detailed Review Sections
Arrow 1. Introduction
Aarow 2. Overview
Arrow 3. Out of the Box
Aarow 4. Operation
Aarow 5. Performance
Aarow 6. Comparisons
Aarow 7. Conclusions
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