The Ascaso Arc represents the "low end" in the new three-machine lineup by Ascaso, a Spanish manufacturer and marketing company of consumer espresso machines and grinders. Price competitively below $400 (Canadian dollars - roughly $290 US), the Arc presents a serious challenge to other "pretty" espresso machines on the market, including the Francis! Francis! (FF!!) lineup and the new machines from Espressione / Grimac.
The Ascaso Arc is available in a variety of colour choices and two brewing models are available: the grounds version (tested here) which includes both a grounds portafilter and pod adapter portafilter, and a pod only version with a different brewgroup design.
We were supplied this test machine by Morala Trading, an Ottawa (Canada) based consumer and profession espresso machine importer and seller. They will soon have a second location in Toronto. All prices mentioned in this First Look and detailed review are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise specified.
We will be evaluating the Ascaso Arc alongside an Ascaso conical burr grinder, also supplied by Morala.
Out of the Box
| Compared |
The Innova Arc (right) compared with the Francis! Francis! X3 (left)
| Compared |
The X3 has a much narrower profile, but the Arc on the right isn't overly large.
The Ascaso machines are packaged in attractive brown boxes, but the interior structure and protection of the main box could be better - the machine tends to sit slightly loose inside the box, with only a few form-cut cardboard holders keeping the machine secure. Our test machines were provided to us in person at a trade show, so the machines were in great condition. Morala (our supplier) stated that the machines ship well, however, with no damage issues reported so far.
These machines come pretty complete out of the box. Our Ascaso Arc came with a grounds-portafilter (57mm) made of hefty chromed brass, complete with a retention spring for the filter baskets. It isn't as beefy as a Silvia portafilter, but is on par with the portafilter Francis! Francis! machines ship with, and better quality than the portafilters that ship with other budget machines, including Saecos. The grounds portafilter comes with both a single and double filter basket, made of stainless steel. The double can hold as much as 15.5 grams of coffee without touching the dispersion screen.
The Arc also ships with a pod portafilter (the machine is ESE certified); this portafilter is a virtual clone of the pod portafilter that ships with the Francis! Francis! machines. It also ships with a pod dispersion screen replacement for the machine, which is different from the Francis! Francis! models. If you decide to use pods with this machine, you have to take out the grounds dispersion screen assembly, and screw the pod dispersion screen in place.
The box also includes a plastic tamper (ditch it and buy a nice 57mm Reg Barber) and the machine's instruction manual.
The machine itself is very pretty - for the lowest priced machine in the Ascaso lineup, I think the quality of parts used for the "skin" are outstanding. The sides and back are a good quality plastic, and the splash guard, drip tray, and cup warming top are all polished metal. The grouphead is a beefy chrome and brass assembly, and even the water reservoir is well designed and holds a lot of agua (over 2 litres). I even like the fit, finish and feel of the control buttons.
The machine measures 21.5cm wide, 32cm tall, and 27cm from front to back, making it a nice small package that would fit on any kitchen counter. It weighs in at 6.7kg empty. The power ratings on the back panel tell me it is a 1000w, 110v power system, and the boiler is approximately 150ml in internal volume.
Morala Trading also provided us with a current generation Ascaso Conical Doserless Grinder to match up with the Arc, and we'll be mentioning it often in this First Look. Our test unit is in black with a new plastic grind catching tray. It is the chute (doserless model) and features a conical burr inside, and the worm gear driven, super controllable grind selection. This grinder offers even more precise grind changes than a Mazzer grinder does - so much so that to change shot brewing times by a second or so requires almost a full revolution on the grind selection dial.
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| Fit and Finish |
The fit and finish of the controls is superb - Saeco could take a lesson here.
| Drip Tray |
Polished thin steel with an okay drainage pattern.
| Drip Pan |
The pan's okay in depth, and includes a liquid level indicator.
| Slides out |
The entire drip tray assembly slides out for easy cleaning.
| Grounds portafilter |
A fairly decent portafilter in any measure, and an exceptional one at this price point, the Arc's PF is chromed brass with a removable double spout, and spring retention inside.
Setting up the Ascaso Arc is similar to most other single boiler / dual use boiler machines, but as always I read the manual to get the full scoop. The manual is well written and a few steps up on the typically poor-translation manual you get with many Italian manufactured machines. The Arc manual really gets you started, so remember: there's no excuse not to read the manual. You donít have to worry about your hair falling out or somehow losing your manhood if you crack open the book and give it a good peek.
I harp on manuals all the time, and I'm happy to say people are starting to do it more often (based on email feedback I get); one reader had a great idea on reading the manual. After you get a new machine, grab the manual and head off to a local Starbies or similar, and order a cappuccino and single shot espresso. Sit down and enjoy (maybe) the drinks while you read the manual from start to finish. Then go home and put what you learned to practice. With good beans, a good grinder, and a good understanding of your new machine, chances are those first shots will surpass what you just had at the local coffee house chain. How cool is that?
The Arc has an ample-sized reservoir that slots neatly into the body of the machine, so first task (after rinsing and wiping down all the components that touch your espresso brewing) was filling up the reservoir and plugging the machine in. Open the steam wand knob, turn the machine on, and press the brewing switch: soon, the boiler fills and water starts shooting out the steam wand into a cup you place under it.
At this point the machine is filled and ready to heat up. I like to give all machines a half hour minimum warm up time, especially on first use, so I gave the Ascaso Arc this time, and went to feel the heat accumulating on the machine. Up top, the cup warming area was warm, but not by much. The grouphead felt hot to the touch, but I would want it a bit hotter. The portafilter (grounds model) was sufficiently hot, as was the inside of the grouphead, so I proclaimed the machine good to go.
| Grouphead |
Nice all brass and chrome grouphead - you have to swap out the dispersion screen for a tiny one if you want to do pods.
Dialing in the Ascaso grinder was a bit of a challenge. I discuss this in depth in the Detailed Review for this grinder, but I'll repeat it here - the bonus of having a super amount of control over the fineness of the grind comes with the expense that you have to sit there and twist the grind dial for a long time if your grinder is initially set up for grinding for a moka pot or drip brewing. Mine as shipped was on the coarse side, and I calibrated the grind to a Rancilio Silvia we are also testing before I used it for the Arc. It took me four shots before I was getting a grind I was happy with, delivering roughly 2 oz of espresso from a double basket in about 27 seconds.
But this is all setup - it was time to pull my first shots, and I can say my experience was similar to my first attempts with the Francis! Francis! X1 that we're also currently testing. These first dialed in espresso shots on the Ascaso Arc were what I'd call acceptable overall, and very good for this class and price range of machine. In fact, at some $300+ cheaper than the FF!! X1, these shots were great, all other things being equal.
The Ascaso Arc is fairly quiet - not as quiet as the Solis SL-70 (current whisper-quiet machine record holder in our lab) but you can carry on a normal conversation while brewing a shot. I also found that the machine can handle a good range of grinds. In fact it plowed through a grind that the Rancilio Silvia choked on. Is this a good thing? Maybe, maybe not.
The Silvia has a check valve so it delivers roughly 9BAR to the grouphead, not much more. It's possible that the Arc's check valve (if it has one) has a higher tolerance, and thus can plow on more than 9BAR of pressure when needed to pound through finer grinds. This may not be good because scientific studies done by Illy and other companies have shown that 9BAR is ideal for extraction, and that higher pressures at best do no more for the resulting flavour, and at worst can result in bitter, overextracted shots.
Still, my initial shots from the Arc were promising, especially considering this machine's price point. This first week was looking good.
First Week with the Ascaso Arc
As the week went on, I found this machine very comparable to the Francis! Francis! X3's initial performance. Alas, I don't have that particular machine available for testing any longer, so I decided to put it head to head with the X1 from Francis! Francis! and the Arc was more than holding its own.
One area I was having challenges with was in pod usage. After modifying the grouphead to use pods, I had the Arc side by side with the Solis SL-70, which has been our best pod machine to date. The SL-70 shots were superior both in taste and looks when analyzing the shots produced with pods from Intelligentsia.
Illy needs to do something with their ESE certification system - the current convertible pod design of a multi-gasket grouphead and flat portafilter combo isn't working. Solis' decade-old design of using a pressurized basket for pods results in much better extraction. It's a no-brainer change too - product manufacturers can ship a machine with one portafilter (instead of two), and introduce instead a third portafilter basket that is pressurized and designed to hold a pod. But I digress. Suffice to say, pod performance was on par with other ESE certified machines.
Shot performance was what I'd call good overall, and great for this price point. Achieving good, crema-laden shot pours was relatively easy with this machine, though at times I did taste some excessive bitterness in the shots. Doing an extended flush of the boiler before brewing (running the brew switch with no portafilter in place for 3 or 4 seconds before locking in the loaded portafilter) did reduce the bitterness.
| Reservoir |
The machine's reservoir is huge, and is easily visible while operating the machine.
| Froth Aid |
The wand has a built in froth aid - but just surf that tiny hole on the side to the top of your milk, and you're microfrothin'
As mentioned in the prelim, dialing in the Ascaso grinder was a bit of a challenge given the super-detailed grind adjustment of the worm-drive system that grinder has. I used a Silvia as my benchmark - I set up a dozen shots using near-identical dosing and tamping until I got a nice 27 second double (2oz total brewed) shot that exhibited nice tiger striping and mottling on the finished shots. I then used this same grind setting with the Arc; one variable was that the Arc holds about 1 gram less coffee than the Silvia, and the shots seemed to run faster as a result - about 24 seconds for that double. You can't overstuff this basket by much on the Arc, so I gave a full 360 degree turn on the Ascaso grinder's adjustment knob, and was up in the 26 second range.
I like how this grinder matches up with the Arc, at least at this early testing stage.
Steaming with the Arc
Similar to many machines at this price point, the Ascaso Arc ships with a froth aiding device designed into the steam wand assembly. Fortunately, it's one of these newer designs of frothing aiders, similar to the FF!! version; it has a small intake hole on the side of the outer sleeve. You can froth using the froth aider and get big bubble, dishwasher soap type foam, but with a little finesse you can "surf" the side intake hole on the surface of your milk and get pretty decent microfoam. Read our Milk Frothing Guide for more info on how to do this.
Overall, I was happy with the steaming performance of this machine, albeit with only a few tries under my belt. In our Detailed Review, we'll look more in depth at the steaming ability, steaming times, heat up times, and recovery times in this system to give a full evaluation of how it performs, especially for those Venti lovers out there (you know who you are :)).
Early use of this machine shows it to be a winner, mainly based on its price point. You get similar performance to a Francis! Francis! machine, but for substantially less - under $300 US vs. the $450 for a FF!! X3, or the astronomical $600+ for the X1 models.
That said, I had some concerns with the pump pressure - as in too much of it at times. A grind that choked the Rancilio Silvia was nary a problem for this machine - and that isn't necessarily a good thing. Pod performance was on par with most other ESE machines, but could be better, and ground coffee performance, using an identical grind suitable for a Silvia or even a heat exchanger machine like the Isomac Millenium produced a fairly good shot, one that improved if you flush the group for a few seconds before brewing your shot.
I liked the ample reservoir size, the compact shape of the machine, and the overall looks. The fit and finish of the control buttons is superb for a machine in this price class.
Keep in mind - this First Look is based on only a week's worth of testing of the machine - this simply isn't enough time to give a qualified opinion on the Ascaso Arc. We need to see how the product does long term; how the components hold up, and even how the fit and finish maintains itself as we pound 100s of shots through the machine, sliding dozens of cups across the cup warmer and drip tray. But early on, this machine looks to be a solid contender in the budget espresso machine department.
Matched up with an Ascaso Grinder, you can have a complete home espresso setup for both pods and ground coffee for around $500 US, which is a bargain these days, given the ever-increasing prices of Italian made machines.
We would once again like to thank Morala Import for providing us with this machine. The Ascaso Arc retails for around $400 Cdn normally, but Morala was selling this tested model at $369 (about $280 US dollars) as of this writing. They are located in Ottawa, Ontario, and ship across Canada.