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the detailed review - master 5000 digital
Master 5000 Digital - Product In Depth
Introduction | Overview | Introduction | Indepth | 2 Years Later | Conclusion
Master Digital

This indepth look at the Master Digital has me walking you through all normal stages with it - from unpacking to first use, from pulling a shot to normal maintenance, and more. I'll also cover the various parts and functionality of the machine.

Out of the box
Unpacking and setting up the machine was incredibly easy. The Master Digital is packed fairly well, though the styro shell could be a bit thicker to offer the kind of protection a product needs when being handled by the fine folks at UPS. It comes complete with a manual, some starter items including a couple of cleaning tabs, a sample of CleanCaff, a brush, a key for the brew group, a testing strip for water hardness, and more. My unit also came with a long steam arm to supplement the built in short one.

Once removed from the box, all it takes to start brewing with the machine is adding water, beans, plugging it in, and waiting for it to warm up. It's that easy, but don't fool yourself - it comes with a detailed product manual, and you know the CoffeeGeek slogan - read that freaky manual, man! And I'm serious to everyone out there. Just because this is an automated machine does not mean you should skip giving the product manual a good two or three reads from the get go. Don't think you know it all - read the manual then know something. Especially how to use the digital control panel - it's not a bed of roses.

Baratza pre-tunes every Master Digital, setting it up for standard N. American use and expectations (including temperature controls and water volumes), and they add a much needed auto frother (see below) in the box. Baratza also presets the grind level and volume to optimum rates, which you can change if you like, along with some of the temperature controls.

Side pullout drawer
Side drawer for spent pucks. Holds a fair amount, but machine will not operate after about 12-15 pucks are ejected - it asks you to clean this drawer first!

Initial Setup
When you first plug in the machine, it initializes itself. where the machine checks the internal systems and sensors. Because this is your first use, you need to prime the machine - you do so by opening up the steam/hot water knob on the left side, activating the pump, which fills the boiler for the first time. As soon as you see water coming out of the steam wand, the machine is primed an ready to go. Almost. It will do some further initializations, heat up appropriately, and then it gives you the good to go signal via the digital display. The display panel is backlit, and a green digital display with black letters, and is quite detailed and informative. You can select one of five or six languages, but it comes preset for English.

My initial shots with the machine were used to program the shot volumes for each of the three brew buttons on the front. This is one of the better perks of this machine, and is something you don't get with most lower priced super automatics - the ability to custom program the liquid volumes for each brew button.

It is easy to do - you just hold the specific button the entire time your shot is brewing, and let go as soon as the volume you want is in the cup. I was able to program the smallest volume button to do a 3/4 ounce ristretto with the normal preinfusion. I programmed the normal shot button to do 1.5 ounces, and the large coffee button to do 5 ounces. Once programmed, your shots will be within a few mls of your set volume no matter how fine or coarse the grind, because of an internal volumemeter - it measures the shots by volume, not by timer. If you want a double shot, just press the button twice. You cannot combine different shot volumes though - ie, you cannot press the ristretto button then the normal shot button to get a varied shot - you will simply get 2 ristrettos.

The Master Digital grinds for each shot and can multitask depending on your selection on the digital button pads. For example, if you decide you want a double shot the machine will grind for the first shot, does it, tamp, and then start grinding for the second shot as it continues to prep for your initial shot of espresso, preinfusing then brewing it. By the time the brew for the first shot has ended, the machine has ground enough coffee for your second shot. The Master Digital ejects the spent puck, immediately takes the next volume of grinds, tamps, preinfuses, then brews the second shot. Only then does the machine reprime itself, waiting for the next "user intervention".

In high traffic or office use, you can set the machine up so it will pregrind for the next user, each time it brews. What this means is that when you walk up to the machine and press a brew button, it literally starts prepping the shot and brewing using a built up cache of grinds. While it is brewing your drink, it starts grinding for the next person to come along at a later time. In the home, this is not a good thing to do - you could end up drinking a shot made from day old grounds - but in the office, this is great. I like the fact you can turn this ability on or off.

The machine also allows you to set your preinfusion mode: normal volume, long, or none at all.

Beans and Dials
Upper dial is the grind fineness selector; lower dial is the grind volume selector.

Grinder
The first thing we'll look at is the grinder. It's a neat overall device, and is a step up in design and ability from the grinder inside the original Solis Master 5000 super auto. Not only can you select your grinding fineness with a 12 point dial (something most super autos can do these days), but you can also select the volume of grinds produced, from 6 to 9 grams per shot (something most super autos cannot do). Nice feature, and well received by me.

We set up this machine in our office to grind super fine and around 7 grams per shot. Most of the time we are producing an espresso, cappuccino or americano, so this setting worked well for us. But for the times we wanted to try a drink popular in Switzerland - a Cafe Creme, it was easy enough to manage - to brew that 5 ounce drink, you simply move the grind fineness dial to as coarse as possible. This way you're brewing a rapid coffee. Just remember to dial it back to the espresso setting once you're done. There's no concern about damaging the burr set and jamming the device because this machine features a very competent gear reduction system to provide ample torque under load.

The grind hopper holds quite a bit of beans - almost a full pound can be crammed in there. But unless this machine is in a high volume area, it's probably wise not to fill it up - with the large surface area and leaky lid (as in oxygen travels freely), beans can go stale fast.

The grinder is also noisy - on par with a Starbucks Barista or Solis Mulino grinder, but not as quiet as a Solis Maestro grinder or a Rancilio Rocky.

Top of the Master Digital
Master 5K Top, without lids. 1.7 litre water tank on the left, grinder on the right, cup warmer in middle.

Water tank and delivery
Looking at the liquid part of the operation, the water tank on the left side is stylishly designed to fit the profile of this space-age looking machine, but this is also a major drawback - the water tank is very awkward to pull out of the machine and handle. It has 4 legs built into the curved bottom allowing you to place it flat in a sink for refilling.

And refilling it is something you're going to be doing often. At 1.7 litres, the capacity of this tank is very small especially for one of the environments this machine is targeted to: small office use. We found that we had to refill this water tank at least 4 times a day when all our six staff members were present in the office. That's simply too much, and the awkward handling of the water tank made us come to rely on a Britta water filter pitcher for refilling.

You can get this machine custom ordered as a "plumb in" model, meaning it can be hooked up to a water line. In the office, this would be the way to go. The cost is $125 extra, and uses a 1/4 inch flexi connection just like the one used for ice makers. It's a dual float valve system that includes a replacement lid for your reservoir. This system does not pressurize your water delivery to the machine.

Click for larger image
The brew group from the Master Digital. Quite a piece of work. Click to enlarge.

Brewing apparatus
The brewing apparatus inside the machine is removable, and is quite a huge chunk of complicated plastic and metal bits.

It is a self contained system of levers, pathways, tubes, a filter basket, tamper/doser mechanism, and puck ejector. As stated, it's almost entirely plastic with metal used in the filter basket. The brewed shot delivery system consists of a long tube with a crema enhancing device built in. The end of the tube pours your espresso into yet another piece of plastic - a shot divider hunk of plastic that is designed more to look good than to help in producing a good shot of espresso. It is functional too - you can raise it or lower it, move it forward or back somewhat, to accommodate different sized cups.

I really don't like all this plastic and especially the extra long path your espresso has to travel. Why? All that heat loss gets to me (and affects your shot). And in the cup the numbers show it - you get a shot of espresso that is about 180F in the cup. By comparison, I get about  188F from my Pasquini Livia, in the cup. There's a reason why espresso aficionados are so concerned about preheating cups and groupheads and the like - maintaining the brew temperature as best as possible.

The only upside to this is that where the brew is made - inside the brewing apparatus - it doesn't travel long from the boiler. So your espresso is brewed at a fairly decent temperature, but the approximately 8-10 inches it has to travel through a tiny 1/8 inch tube cannot be doing anything to help the shot.

Other parts and features
On the left side of the machine is a drawer where the spent grinds go. It's pretty deep, but this is deceiving - the machine will warn that drawer is full after about a dozen shots or so, even though it looks like you can get triple the amount of pucks in there... but the machine will refuse to operate until you empty it out. Good and bad thing, I suppose - it gets people cleaning the machine often, and if there's people in your office who never clean anything, well this machine won't brew for them unless they dump that full bucket.

On the right side of the machine is a "smart" steam switch/knob - a cross between an automatic machines' steam button, and a manual steaming knob. There isn't much tactile feedback and a sense of control with the steaming on this knob - it isn't quite the "all or nothing" situation that press button steaming gives you, but isn't as satisfying as a fully manual valve control knob.

It does have some nice features built in - when you are not in steaming mode, accessing hot water is just a matter of turning this steam dial. The pump is automatically activated, a good volume of hot water comes out, and the machine tells you it is delivering hot water.

In steam mode, the pump activates as well, but in an innovative way. As you steam your milk, the machine gives off a rhythmic pup pup pup sound. This is the pump replenishing the tank with very small amounts of water. Why? Well, this prevents you from steaming the tank dry, meaning you could steam for a half hour or more (maybe an hour or two!) until the external tank is dry on top. The internal boiler is always replenished with just enough water to maintain the steam pressure. Nice feature.

Switching from steam mode back to brew mode kicks in the multi-faceted auto priming system, and the machine warns that you are in "overtemperature", or too hot to brew a shot of espresso. It will go back into ready to brew mode as soon as the temperature goes back down, and maintain that temp until the the machine's energy saving "standby" mode kicks in, at a time you program.

Machine maintenance
Regular cleaning the machine is never a chore, and this convenience is partially responsible for the high price of the machine. Because the entire grind and brew process is automated and internal, you don't have to clean portafilters. You don't get grinds on the counter. You don't have to rinse a grouphead. But you do have to "clean" this machine. How do you do it? It has a built in cleaning cycle.

To run it, you add some importer recommended cleaner (CleanCaf), or one of the "Solistab" cleaning tablet that shipped with the machine, and press the blue cleaning cycle button. Just make sure the water tank is full, and the drip tray is bone dry prior to starting, and that's all it takes. The machine does the rest, running through a bunch of cleaning cycles.

Solis has a recommendation for when to clean this machine, and I have my own - every 100 shots or so, run the cleaning program. And every 300 shots or so, do a special cleaning on it, which does require a bit of grunt work. (how do you know when you've had 300 shots? The machine keeps track of all the coffees it's made, and this info is accessible through the display panel).

The detailed cleaning is more labour intensive. It requires removing the brew group and giving it a good scrub and rinse. The use of dish soap is not recommended by Baratza - but you can use pressurized water (like a hose) to get some of the hard to reach grit out. Shake it like a mad dog, then set aside to dry. Next up is the machine's internals. Get a grinder brush ($3 at Starbucks) and use it to reach up into the area where you see some coffee powder inside the machine. Don't force anything, but just brush out any grounds you see. The drip tray area is probably dirty, especially towards the back of the machine. Clean it all out. You can run the spent puck tray through the dishwasher, or hand wash it. Reassemble everything, and run a complete cleaning cycle. She's good to go for the next 300 shots.

There is one negative note about the digital features: I was really surprised to find that the machine does not feature a clock. Nor does it feature the ability to automatically turn on and be ready to brew at a preset time each day. I would have expected this as par for the course, but no, it is not built into the machine. It does have a standby mode, but you have to wait several minutes before it can fully heat up again. The option to have the machine turn on and be ready at a given time is something lacking from this product.

Click for larger image
Double Shot starts. Some crema forms, looks okay, a bit uneven, a bit 'blond". Click any image to enlarge.
Click for larger image
First of two double shots ends, slight guinness effect, very blond.
Click for larger image
Second part of the double shot starts, nice red crema. But it won't last...
Click for larger image
The crema turns blond very fast, and is evident in this picture. You can also notice the uneven production - not balanced well.

Shot Quality
Okay, enough on how the machine looks, feels and works. How about some substance - what is the final product in the cup like?

The first thing is, this machine uses an internal crema enhancer of sorts. I'll state right up front that I don't like crema enhancers. I feel that they degrade shot quality just to enhance the visual appeal.

That said, the selectable grind fineness dial helps you a bit on the Master Digital, and it seems the crema enhancer is fairly low key in effect and affect, which is good. When compared to a Saeco Via Veneto or a Solis SL-90, both of which are espresso machines with crema enhancers - the shots I got from the Master Digital seems to have a darker, richer looking crema, and tasted on par, or even better than the average shot from those non super-auto machines. But when compared to the production from a Rancilio Silvia, or a Pasquini Livia 90, the shots from the Master Digital looked pale and wanting.

A very small amount of "tiger mottling" on the crema from the Master 5K Digital was visible. The shot comes through as a nice syrupy medium golden brown, starting darker than shots I've done with the Solis SL-90.  With very fresh beans, sometimes the shot delivery dispenser device in front of the Master Digital gets clogged in one hole, making most of the espresso pass through only one hole instead of evenly between the two of them.

While the cup temperature is adequate (around 175-180F best measured), it could be a tad warmer - all that plastic tubing to flow through cools it a bit. The good news is, the machine brews at bang on temps, and you can program in one of 4 choices for internal water temperature. Baratza can also further tweak this if you like. Bottom line is the shots were acceptable in the temperature department, but I'd like to see it a bit hotter as it hits the cup.

In taste, I would put the shots from this machine on par with the Solis SL-90 when using the crema enhancing inserts, and maybe a bit higher - it mainly came to body, which seemed slightly fuller. Compared to other super autos I've tried, including several from Saeco, this machine was much better, but my experience is very limited in this kind of testing. One super auto that consistently gave me better shots was the Capresso Jura S9 and F7, priced at $2300 and $1800 respectively. Is the price difference justified? For some yes, but for others, no - the shots aren't that much better.

When we put the Master Digital up against the consumer heavyweights in the semi-auto offerings, it does come up short. Shots produced using the same beans on a Rancilio Silvia and a Pasquini Livia (with a Rocky and/or Mazzer grinder) are consistently better - even shots I would normally consider sub par for those brewing machines.

It comes down to what you want and what you're willing to give up with a super automatic. If you are the type of person who finds the average cafe espresso to be "okay", chances are you're going to be absolutely delighted with the Master Digital. If you're the type of person who has to visit twenty cafes before finding even one that pours a "passable" espresso, then the super auto world just isn't for you.

When I originally wrote this review, I came up with some percentages to compare the typical output of the Master Digital to traditional cafes. I still find these numbers stand up today:

Whereas the Pasquini Livia, a Mini Mazzer grinder, and my own skill and quality beans can produce an espresso better than as much as 90% of the cafes in my city on a consistent basis, I feel the Master Digital using the same quality beans and tuned just right can beat out 50% to 60% of the cafes in town, but by a closer margin. That's pretty good for the home or office use.

Wand Without Froth Aider
Simple wand design, no frills, but it doesn't work well.
Wand with Froth Aider
Here's the aftermarket froth aider that Baratza supplies
Wand Exit Hole
This picture shows the size of that exit hole. Way too big.

Steaming, Frothing, Hot Water Delivery
When it comes to steaming on the Master Digital, on or my biggest gripes about the machine shows up:  The machine is quite capable of producing enough steam to froth your 6 oz of milk for two cappas in about 45 seconds or less.  The problem lies in the design of the steam wand itself - the exit hole for your steam is far too large to create any real froth. Forget microfroth - it's impossible with the current wand.

Because of this, Baratza has decided to add to every box a very well made frothing aid. Normally I'm quite opposed to these devices, but this particular model is very well made, featuring a copper and brass outer hull, and a plastic inner part that, on its own, can be used to froth normally, and produces a nice fine jet of steam. So you can froth like a pro, but really like a pro - without any aerating aid just by using the black inner plastic part.

The whole froth aider package does do an adequate job, and in an office environment will turn even the most hopeless newbie into a frothing pro for their peaked meringue froth (for some reason, newbies think this shapable meringue style froth is the proper froth - it isn't. Froth should be pourable, not shapable). It is a bit of a pain to clean, but soaking it for a short while at the end of the day should suffice, plus a quick wipedown after each use.

As I mentioned above, once the froth aider is installed, the machine can froth and heat about 6 ounces of milk (enough for 2 cappas) in about 45 seconds or less - very fast for a machine with a relatively small boiler. The speed and power is there - but we need a redesigned wand!

Making hot water drinks like tea or hot chocolate is a no brainer with this machine - it truly is a kettle replacement - it can fill an eight ounce cup with hot water in about 30 seconds or less (I didn't time it exactly, sorry!). Making Americanos was a breeze (and tasty!), almost as easy as just brewing a double "large". The machine takes only about 45 seconds to move from brewing temperatures to steaming temps, but you should bleed off the wet steam first into the drip tray or an empty vessel.

Next Page...

Introduction | Overview | Introduction | Indepth | 2 Years Later | Conclusion
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