Seems to be a good, reliable, very usable HX machine made in the U.S.
Positive Product Points
Easy to use, reliable, consistent machine. Has E61 group head. Fits under a standard kitchen counter (I had to sand down the rubber feet ~1/8", but my counters are non-standard).
Negative Product Points
Drip tray has to be lifted out rather than sliding out like most machines. A minor inconvenience, but less than ideal. Has the same issues as other HX machines.
I'd been talking about getting a decent machine for a while. I was leaning toward an HX machine based on price alone. Would really prefer a double-boiler, but we all have to make compromises. I also have a passion for buying locally whenever I can (sales and manufacturing, if possible). The GF knows my preferences and thought this would make a nice gift, and it did. I was initially frustrated that somebody else had made my buying decision for me, but was glad to have gotten a nice machine made in the U.S. So that's the history.
There is not a ton of info about this machine, which meant I had to do some experimentation. I practiced pulling shots. A lot of shots. After a couple of dozen I felt like I was getting close. Shots were coming out in ~15 seconds and were a little bitter. I then went to my favorite coffee house, bought a shot and a bag of beans and asked for some advice. They told me my shots were pouring too quickly and I needed a finer grind. Made that adjustment and start to get better shots.
I'll admit to not really getting how HX machines are supposed to work. I understand the mechanics, just not the logic of why it should deliver the correct temp to brew an espresso shot. HX machines seem like a "close enough" kind of design. Knowing that, I always run a cooling short or two before trying to brew a shot. It seems to be pretty effective at getting the temp down. I can't say if the temp is right or not, as I don't have a thermometer on the machine. (Why do HX machines not have a thermometer on the group head? Is this not possible?)
Pulling a shot: there have been a lot of negative comments about the self-tamping feature of this machine. I too thought it was odd when I first got it. After having pulled hundreds of shots I have to wonder what the issue is besides it being different. Some people have mentioned that having the group head compact the shot leads to channeling. This could be - I don't have a naked portafilter to check with (anybody want to loan me one?). My double shots are coming out nicely and take ~30 seconds to pull. I don't see any issues.
Pressure/steaming: This machine seems to perform well. Some sales literature claims it allows continual use - not so. I can run the pressure down too low to steam milk if I try. It has no trouble steaming enough milk for 2-3 lattes and pressure recovers in less than a minute. I like the steaming wand - it quickly produces nice foam. No issues here.
Maintenance: seem to be about the same as other machines. I back-flush frequently and use machine cleaner about once a week. The whole cleaning process with soap takes about 10 mins. There is some coffee build-up in the channel where the portafilter locks. I usually run a moist kitchen towel around the channel until it's clean.
I now pull consistently nice shots with lovey crema, nice color, and taste good.
This was given to me as a gift. The person who bought it for me did not have a great experience with acitydiscount.com. I wish she had bought it from the manufacturer directly or from somebody else. She was shopping based on price. It was well priced, shipped on time, and arrived in good condition.
Three Month Followup
Forgot to do a 3-month follow-up.
One Year Followup
Working well for me. It pulls consistently good shots and the steam wand works well. I like the size and function of an HX machine. I am concerned about temps. I wish this (and others) had a better temp control and indication features (temp gauges as well as pressure). I knock out a puck from my portafilter most of them time. When I don't, it's a bean/grinder issue.
The machine is simple and delivers consistently good shots. This was a gift, so I didn't get a lot of choice. If I were buying for myself, I would look very hard at a higher end used machine, but that's largely because I would like more features. They aren't necessary, but I'm a techie and like to play with stuff. I'd really prefer the quality and control of a double boiler. Not sure the size/cost would work for me.
I have had no issues with it and have not needed to call Astra for help, so can't comment on that.
I have two data points: I get consistently better espresso drinks at home than I do elsewhere, and whenever people come to my house they are amazed at the quality of the espresso. To be fair, most of them are drinking Starbuck's, so besting that is not saying much. Point is, I'm making good espresso. Of course I use good beans and have an adequate grinder (Baratza).
It works best after about an hour or warming up. It's usable after 20 mins, but better after an hour. I haven't measured the power it draws, so I can't comment on that. It does give off a fair amount of heat, not surprisingly. On the weekends I leave it on all day. I will use the steam wand to warm up water. It does so quickly, but can't do more than ~12 oz at a time. However, it recovers pressure in ~10 seconds. (To be honest, an instant hot water heater at the kitchen sink is a much better way to than using an espresso machine.)
Before making coffee I flush with a couple of shots, then wait a minute or two, then another flush. As I'm grinding and tamping I assume the temp settles. I can feel the group head get a little cooler, but have not measured it. I like to flush and wipe down after I'm done with shots as well. Certainly not necessary, but makes cleaning easier.
Note that I am ordering a thinner dispersion block (non self-tamping) to see how that will work.
Pros: - Pulls consistently good shots - Excellent steam wand - Appears to be well built, all stainless - seems like a lot of machine for the price - Like the look/size of the machine - fits under my counter and not unattractive - Seems like good performance for the price - Make in the US (not trying to be overly nationalistic or regionally insensitive, but I like the idea that people not too far from me stay employed making this machine)
Cons: - Self-tamping feature is different (not bad for me - some people challenge the quality it delivers) - Long warm up time - not sure this is unique to the Astra - guessing any machine with sufficient mass will have this issue - I don't like the drip tray design - it has to be tilted slightly to lift out. Would prefer one that slides out and is larger - Would like more features - not really a con of the machine, more a preference I have for something different - No way to install a thermometer on the group head - would be nice if it could take one