The trend among prosumer espresso machines has been toward double boiler machines where one boiler is used for brewing and another boiler is used for steaming. The advantage of dual boilers is that temperature stability for brewing is significantly improved. Heat exchanger (HX) machines use a single boiler at steam temperature and then run water directly from the reservoir (or water line if direct connect) through a tube in the boiler (the HX) which flash heats the water and then runs it to the group head for brewing. What can make HX machines finicky is that they require a cooling flush to get rid of excess superheated water, which would otherwise result in bitter espresso. Getting the cooling flush right can be a challenge and the result can be inconsistent shots.
But this is exactly where the ECM Technika shows how far HX machines have come in terms of temperature stability. Leave it to the Germans to engineer a better HX system that does not require any cooling flush or temperature surfing. There is no splutter of superheated water out of the group head even when the machine has been at full temperature and has sat for awhile. The factory settings on my Technika switch the boiler on at 1.0 bar and shut it off at 1.25 bar. My previous HX machine switched on at 0.9 bar and off at 1.1 bar and yet it required a significant cooling flush. My understanding is that this is accomplished with a shorter HX. If so, this would explain why the warm-up time to get the group head up to full temperature with the thermosyphon is a little longer with the Technika. I find that to reach full temperature the Technika requires about an hour compared to a half hour on my other HX machine. This can be shortened if you cycle on the boiler by pulling hot water through the group head or dispensing steam. Alternatively you can just put the machine on a timer as it is equipped with a vacuum breaker. I've set mine up with a programmable digital timer I picked up at Home Depot to turn on every morning an hour before I get up. Without having to worry about temperature issues, I can focus on my grind, dose, and tamp to get consistent shots with nice thick crema, full flavor, and with no bitterness.
The quality of the parts and build on this machine is fantastic and, in my opinion, makes it a great value. It comes with an E61 group head, full size Sirai pressurestat, Gicar controls, rotary vane pump, dual gauges (boiler pressure and pump pressure), and, unique in this class of machine, a stainless steel boiler. The stainless boiler has a few advantages over a standard copper boiler. It's less prone to scale buildup, more corrosion resistant, and better insulated. The boiler does not have insulation, but given the thickness of the stainless steel it doesn't seem necessary. Once up to temperature, the heating element hardly has to switch on.
I have the machine with the switchable tank or direct connect, but it also comes in both a direct connect only and tank only version. The tank is fantastic as it tubeless. It feeds water to the pump through a ball valve on the bottom of the tank. A hinged lid lifts up with one finger to access and easily fill the tank, without moving the cups on the cup warmer. Great design as it just makes it a lot more convenient to work with. Another feature of this machine that I have been really impressed with is the cup warmer. My prior experience with cup warmers has been that they don't really do much, but this one really works! The sides of the panels are covered with foam insulation to keep them cool and direct the heat up through the holes on the cup warmer area.
The ergonomics of this machine are fabulous. Everything is placed just where it should be and the layout makes it very easy to use when having to quickly make numerous drinks and switching between grinding, brewing and steaming. The portafilter spouts allow plenty of room for cups, with about three and a half inches between the bottom of the spout and top of the drip tray. The gauges are placed up high on the machine making them easily readable. The stock tip on the steam wand works great and I've found it easy to get good quality microfoam with it. The 1.8 liter horizontal boiler provides plenty of steaming power. The hot water wand works well, but I wish it were just a little shorter. Note that the wands are not "no burn" wands, but instead use rubber sleeves to insulate. My prior machine did not have no burn wands so I don't miss them on this machine. Perhaps one of the most unique features of this machine, especially at this price, is the lever controls for the hot water and steam, which are typically only seen on much more expensive machines like the Elektra Sixties. Rather than using knobs which take time to turn to reach full power you just move the lever from its central position to any other position (up, down, or sideways) and the steam is instantly at full power and just as easily turned off. I've found these a real pleasure to use and to help with steaming. The drip tray is very nice and reasonably sized. Finally, the portafilter handles are by far and away the nicest I have ever handled. The handle is heavy chromed brass with an ECM branded on the handle and bakelite cover over part of the handle to keep them cool to the touch. They are significantly heavier than typical E61 portafilter handles and are very nicely balanced in the hand. However, I can't say the same thing about the portafilter baskets. The quality seems fine, but the design just doesn't work for me as I get soupy wet pucks with them. The double basket tapers toward the bottom and is too small. I switched to a ridgeless basket with more holes on the bottom, increased the dose, and coarsened the grind slightly and got better results with more crema. But filter baskets are cheap and easy to replace.
Another thing that I really like about this machine is the very clean well thought out design when you open up and remove the case, things are very cleanly laid out. Check out the pictures on 1st-Line's website and you'll see what I mean (Click Here (www.1st-line.com)). I chalk this up to fine German engineering compared to the typical Italian jumble of wires and copper tubes running everywhere.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I find the Technika to be a really elegant looking machine. The fit and finish are first rate with great metal work on the double-walled insulated stainless case. The ECM badge is a real metal badge that is riveted on to the front and back of the machine, not your typical sticker. I also much prefer the classic look of this machine compared to PID machines that are spoiled by a digital display, which just doesn't look right to me on an espresso machine.
I was considering going with a double boiler machine, but decided not to since I didn't really have room for a machine the size of an Izzo Alex Duetto or Spaziale S1 on my countertop. The smaller footprint of the HX Technika fits great and I'm glad I got this machine. It has much better temperature stability than previous generations of HX machines without the size, cost, and added complexity of a double boiler machine.
I think it's a really good value compared to other high quality HX machines on the market and it has the added plus of being one of the few machines with a quieter rotary vane pump that is switchable between a tank and direct connect (others that I am aware of include the Izzo Alex at $1999 and the Vibiemme Domobar Super at $2099), but I think the Technika is the most compact of the three.