The Solis Crema SL-70 is an often overlooked choice for those who want a budget espresso machine (if $300 can be called a budget machine, and around here, that is!). But the machine is no lightweight. It may lack some of the electronic controls, niceties and bonuses that its bigger brother, the SL-90 has, but in the past few days, we've learned not to underestimate this little powerhouse.
CoffeeGeek was supplied a stock Solis Crema SL-70 in black and silver by the folks at Baratza LLC (website). They are currently (as of this writing) running an Internet special on a run of SL-70s that were produced with the wrong colour scheme. These machines normally retail for around $300 or so, but if you don't mind getting a white machine with green switches, you can pick one up for $270 through Baratza or through selected retailers. Call 1-877-701-2020 for more details.
CoffeeGeek should also note that our parent company, WebMotif Net Services, Inc., has in the past had business dealings with Baratza - WebMotif designed and built their website. This business relationship has no influence on the objectivity of this First Look, or our scheduled Detailed Review for this product.
Out of the Box
In the past I've seen the SL-90 and SL-70 in the Anthracite colour scheme, and for some reason it never did anything for me on an aesthetic appeal level. The current colours of black and silver are a big improvement - these machines give the look of being a serious performer.
| What's in the box: machine, portafilter, 3 filters, manuals, scoop. Click to enlarge. |
They are also heavy! Out of the box, dry as a bone, the SL-70 weighs in at around 21 pounds, which puts many other sub $300 machines to shame. The majority of the outer skin on the machine - the body, framework and top - are all metal, the painted kind. Fine by me - the combo of black with silver looks great, and as they say in the design field, "has legs".
The SL-70 ships in a very colourful and easy to handle box that has a handy carry strap built into it. I know some consider this superfluous, but I like it when a manufacturer takes enough pride in these higher-end machines to pretty up the box. These aren't Krups or Delonghi machines, where production runs are in the tens of thousands, and they can afford to drop big bucks on packaging - these are small companies, doing very small runs of expensive equipment. Where companies like Rancilio and others may ship their premier consumer machines in low-rent packaging, companies like Solis choose to make a statement. Another company has this mentality - Apple. And I like it. Maybe you don't care, so let's move on :)
In the box is a fairly decent manual, and all the accruements you need to get going, except of course for the coffee or grinder. It includes a single and double filter (pressurized), a pod filter (which works surprisingly well, for pods, that is), a measuring scoop, and warranty card. There's no tamper - that's because the SL-70 features one built into the machine. For those of you looking for a real tamper, there's finally good news: Espresso Parts (website) has just started custom making a 52mm tamper in aluminum specifically for the Solis SL line, and will possibly be making a stainless steel version, if demand warrants.
As stated above, this machine is a relative heavyweight, and sits solid on the counter. It is also relatively small which means it takes up a small footprint on your counter. The combination of small physical size and good weight make it seem even heavier than it is.
After reading over Solis' enclosed Kruzanleitung, uhm, I mean Condensato delle istruzioni d'uso... uhm, Brief Introduction sheet (it is in 4 languages, with English coming last) and the product manual (turn all the way to pg. 46 for the start of the English instructions), I was rarin' to go. Getting to that point where you can brew your first shot is easy, and follows a common pattern with semi automatic machines (note, this pattern delineates from the Brief Intro document a tad - it includes some of my own patented "cheat your machine" tips):
- Rinse out and fill the water reservoir.
- Insert the reservoir, plug the machine in, and turn the power switch on.
- Manually prime the boiler by running the pump switch and opening the steam wand (so water will eventually flow out of the wand).
- Wait for the machine to indicate brew ready.
- Run about 5 or 6 ounces of water (about 30 to 40 seconds of pump time) through the grouphead to get it nice and hot.
- Let the machine come back to a ready state (green light is on), then run the pump again, this time opening the steam valve to get the other lines hot and toasty.
- Wait for the green lamp to come on again, and run another 30 seconds or so of pump time through the portafilter.
- Machine is reasonably ready to brew, with good temps inside and out.
Immediately, I noticed a few things about the SL 70. First and foremost, this machine is q.u.i.e.t. Seriously quiet. If this were an acoustic guitar player, my Pasquini Livia would be The Who, Live at Leeds, at 11 on the amps. The difference is that noticeable. Kudos to those zany Swiss for their sound muffling abilities - my understanding is that this machine uses the same type of pump that the Rancilios, Gaggias, and even my Livia uses.
Another thing I noticed. This machine gets nice and hot. The grouphead got very hot, the portafilter, the steam wand are all naturally hot, but the sides and cup warmer area got up to a nice temperature as well. Big plus for those who seek temperature stability.
So for my inaugural shot I used... some Illy preground. Opened about two weeks ago. Where was my head?
| Filters galore. Clockwise from top left: unpressurized single, unpressurized double, pressurized double, pressurized single. Click to enlarge. |
Well, I'll tell you where my head was - I was going to test just how much darned crema that stale, stanky Illy preground would produce in that pressurized gizmo double filter they ship with the machine. Earlier in the day, I locked and loaded up a La Pavoni Professional with that same Illy preground, and all I got was a chocolate brown smudge in the cup, with a bare whisper of some pale golden stuff at the edges. Let's see what the Solis SL 70 could do.
And guess what. LOTS of crema on that shot. Which just goes to show you - crema enhancers are not good for you. It's true. Crema is supposed to be one of those indicators of a good espresso shot. It isn't window dressing or a fancy book cover. It actually serves a real purpose, but you take away that purpose with these crema enhancing doo dads.
So I had this double shot of Illy skankly old ground, and I stared at it. I knew it was going to taste even worse the longer I left it, and I am an intrepid product tester, ready and sometimes willing to take risks you at home should never even attempt.
So I drank it. It took me half a day to get my tastebuds back. It will take weeks to get them to forgive me. I hope you're all happy.
After my tastebuds did sort of come back, I used some fresh roasted, fresh ground (from a Solis Maestro no less) in the machine and decided to see if the crema enhancers would hurt what could be a good shot. I pulled a shot using the identical ground coffee from a Pasquini Livia as a benchmark, and it was good, really darned good. Then I locked and loaded a preheated SL 70, and I got...
Lots of crema. Lighter than the Livia. But good... good. Not as good as the Livia shot, but pretty good, all things considered. It seemed to be missing some body, some texture, defects that I attribute almost 100% to the crema enhancers. But who knows, I destroyed my tastebuds earlier in the day (thanks to you folks out there!! Don't you ever get enough!!), so it may take several weeks before I can be "real" again, and really judge the differences in taste. Stay tuned for the Detailed Review for more on this.
| The pod adapter did this! Mmm. False Guinness Effect... Click to enlarge. |
My next session with the machine was with Baratza's aftermarket unpressurized filters. Now we're talking. We need no stinkin' crema enhancing gizmos, and after an initial dial in period, the shots were coming good and very good. Dial in is a tricky thing, so I'm not prepared to make judgements, good or bad at this early stage with regards to the shot output.
Towards end of the day, I was feeling frisky, so I tried a couple of pod shots. I should point out this machine is not ESE certified, but you know what? As far as pod shot production goes, this SL 70 ain't too bad. Tons of crema on my first pod attempt, (the pod basket is also a crema enhancer, I should point out) and as a builder drink (milk based), it serves its purpose. And nothin's easier than pods. Except maybe a super auto - which can also produce a better shot of espresso, but at what cost... at what cost.
The first few days with the SL 70
Let me tell you one thing right off the bat. That special person, the one who lives with me in our house? She loved this machine. Much more so than my Livia. Know why? Because it's q.u.i.e.t. Very quiet. Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits quiet. The only machines quieter are the manual piston machines, which don't have a pump at all.
| Steam ability and functionality is a perk on this machine. Simple, but works. Click to enlarge. |
Quiet does not equate any weakness with this machine - it is, as they say, a performer. And as the days progressed, I discovered other factors that can be considered "perks". They include:
- Steam power and then some. Just like its bigger sibling, the SL-70 makes serious use of its big stack boiler. And the steam tip is just bam - it creates the same kind of turbulent rolling action the big boys do. It takes a bit longer than the Rancilio Silvia to steam 10 ounces of milk (about 55 seconds) but I found that very acceptable. It is a single hole tip, and the wand only moves front to back, but I'm okay with that.
- What I liked even more was the almost insanely easy microfoam it produced - velvet, I'm talking here.
- Did I mention it does not ship with froth aiders? Huge plus in this reviewer's book. Maybe not in everyone else's.
- Even getting the machine up to steam temps is a big time perk - I haven't timed it yet, but it seems faster than the Silvia (going by memory) and is definitely faster than some of the other test machines I have in the house. This is a good thing to look for in a single-boiler machine.
- Hot water delivery, while not on par with the SL 90 in terms of ease of use, is nonetheless intuitive, easy, and plentiful. I'll have temp ratings for the Detailed Review.
- Adjustable height drip tray - I like it - flip it one way for those big style 'merican mugs, flip it the other way to bring your espresso cups closer to the spouts. The Nuova Simonelli Oscar pulls this trick too, but Solis has been doing it for a long time.
- Recessible cord - yeah! After dealing with awesome machines that have some of the stupidest cord placements (let's see - Mini Mazzer, La Pavoni Professional, Innova Grinder, Elektra Micro Casa, etc etc), finally a company that does it right. Machines close to the plug? Feed that cord into the machine's guts!
- Easily noted water level. The water reservoir is a removable tank that runs the width of the product and then some, stretching past the left and right side. Very easy to see how much water you have remaining. Take that, Silvia!
- Look and feel, fit and finish. It's all good.
In fact, I had to work in the past three days to find things I didn't like about this machine. Keep in mind I'm judging this machine as a $300 model - so there are things I completely accept as "the norm" in this machine that I wouldn't in a $1000 machine.
- Pressurized filter baskets. Sure, they can produce an awesome shot, but they are the lying mistress of this machine - they fool you, tempt you, then take you for a sucker. Just say no if you're seeking espresso perfection (and order the custom made non pressurized baskets direct from Baratza LLC)
- Filter grind volume. These filter baskets are small. Closer to the piston machine sizing than a Silvia or Livia sizing. That means less coffee for you to extract from. Some may see this as a money saving perk, but hell, I'm pulling shots from a 2.5x sized basket for my Livia these days (about 22 grams). The double basket on the SL 70 maxes out at barely 14 (and that's beyond chok full. That's chok-full).
- Gimmicky portafilter. Sure it's brass, sure it's coated with chrome, and sure it has good weight. But what's with the lack of a basket spring (for holding the filter in place when you knockbox the spent puck), instead opting for a goofy flip lever that makes it hard to manually tamp the portafilter?
- Not auto priming. Sure, this is a $300 machine, but I guess I'm so used to machines that will auto fill the boiler after depleting the reservoir during steaming, I miss it. This is a minor complaint though, and probably way beyond what my expectations should be.
- No 3-way solenoid for portafilter pressure relief after pulling a shot. Again, expecting this on a $300 machine is marginal at best, and wishful thinking. Still, this machine would probably move up to the "deal of the century" category with a 3-way.
- The little LED lights are hard to see under fluorescents. Now - we're in nitpickin' country - but what the hell. This is extremely minor, but enough of an issue for me to write about it - that green ready lamp? It is really hard to see under fluorescent lighting. Maybe if they got rid of some of the "texture" coating they have over the lamp's dot, it would improve visibility of the lights.
If you read the negatives above with a keen eye, much of it is ado about... nothing. Sure it's got crema enhancers, but you can easily remedy that. Sure it's got a goofy portafilter, but is that a hindrance in producing a spectacular shot? Hardly. And hey, if you're someone who "just wants their coffee and get on with the day, damnit!", this machine is ideal for you, with its multiple uses between pods, goof-proof grounds brewing, and easy hot water and steam delivery.
And just as the machine lends itself to no brainer espresso production, it also appears to be a machine you can build on. That building you partake in is all about you and your skills. Marry this machine to the unpressurized baskets, and you've got a very capable single boiler machine. You've got a tool that you can use to hone those barista skills.
And that ain't bad at all.
Stay tuned for our uber-complex Detailed Review of the Solis Crema SL-70 coming around the start of May. CoffeeGeek would like to thank Baratza LLC (website) for their contribution of this product for our Detailed Review process, and we would also like to remind you that this is not a formal review for the product - it is a First Look, and everything written is subject to revision or just plain outright change.