Buy a Cimbali Jr. if you are looking to buy your last espresso machine, because there won't be a reason to ever upgrade it.
Positive Product Points
If you are looking for a sturdy, dependable, predictable, user friendly machine, as good or better than used by your local cafes, look no further. If someday you want to host a party for 100 of your closest friends, this machine can handle the espresso drink orders at the end. Built like a Sherman Tank.
Negative Product Points
Heavy and large. Requires maintenance as does any commercial or semi-commercial machine.
I've actually owned this machine for 8+ months (see below 3 year followup), but that was not an option on the above menu. Prior to owning this machine, I had nearly 8 years of experience with the machine it replaced, a vibratory pump pourover semiautomatic Cimbali Jr. of a slightly earlier vintage. The two machines are very similar, having more or less the same boiler and group. The Cimbali group is a massive chunk of brass that is directly connected to the HEX (heat exchanger) plumbing as well as the boiler. The combination of boiler-HEX-group accounts for a lot of the thermal stability of the machine which is one of its finer points. The earlier (vibe) machine was the most trouble-free appliance I've ever owned, which is why I did not look around much when I decided to upgrade to a rotary pump machine. I'm sold on Cimbali. (Note: I continue to use the vibe machine as well, and it is now 10 years old in 2006).
This machine, like most any rotary machine, needs to be plumbed in, which takes a bit more effort than simply putting a pourover on the counter. The minor hassles in installation are repaid eventually with less hassles in operation, e.g. no need to fill a tank and no need to pick up the drip tray when full and pour it into the sink. Similarly, when you do plumb in a machine, you do need to be mindful of the water quality issues relating to espresso machines. If you live in an area with hard water, running untreated tap water in the machine will calcify the innerds and create untold aggravation, requiring service. The simplest solution is to use what I do -- water softener cartridges. These produce water that is probably too soft for optimal espresso quality, so if you want to spend some more money you could get a reverse osmosis system that puts back in some minerals after the minerals are removed; this all comes at a tradeoff in that the "optimal" hardness of water for espresso, e.g. 3-5 gpg, will cause some scale formation in the machine. This is not a unique observation for this Cimbali machine, but rather for all plumbed in machines you might care enough about to want to keep :-)
Getting back to the machine; it has 4 automatic, programmable buttons at the top panel which can be programmed for shot volumes. A fifth button, in the center, turns the flow on for up to a minute unless you hit it again to turn it off; I use this one for backflushing. I've only bothered to program 2 of the 4 shot timing buttons, 1 for a single and one for a double (note: later, I programmed only for a 50ml. flush and for a double; I never make singles). Programming these buttons is simple and well explained in the owners manual. If you decide later that you'd like to change the volumes dispensed, this is easily done in a couple of minutes. I use the buttons to flush the group before making shots when the machine has been idle, to cool off the group which as in most HEX machines tends to overheat when the machine is in a low volume setting such as a home (this is true of all good, massive, HEX machines I know of, not just this Cimbali). I also use the shot buttons to produce the shots, although it is very easy to terminate a shot early if you wish (by hitting the shot button again) depending on how the shot looks as it pours or if you change the grind with the intention of producing a ristretto or two. So, it is easy to operate this automatic machine as if it were a manual machine, if you are so inclined.
When it comes to frothing, the SS steam tip supplied with this machine is the best I've ever used. Even a novice can produce excellent foam after a few tries. I regularly foam 4 to 6 ounces of milk and it is easy to do with this machine -- you aren't limited to foaming commercial quantities of milk.
Comparing this machine to my old Vibratory pump machine is easy; given the small price differential when new, I would not buy the pourover version of this machine unless there was absolutely no way to plumb in the rotary pump version. The coffee produced in the rotary pump machine is simply superior (note: see below 3 year followup; I no longer believe this), and there is not the risk of producing unpleasant shots if you ground too finely, as there is in the vibe machine (see below update). On occasion I've had shots that took 45 or more seconds to produce due to errors in my grinder setting -- typically these have been very good shots in the rotary machine but not very good shots in the old vibe machine. My old vibe machine lacked a functional pressure relief valve, which might account for some of this, however I think there is some magic there in the rotary pump (I later recussitated the OPV in the old vibe machine and it reliably extracts at 9 bar; the previous comment is no longer supportable).
When it comes to maintenance, there is a time comittment and there is no way around that; I suppose that is true for any commercial machine. I spend a minute backflushing the machine daily, and about 15 to 20 minutes once a week cleaning the shower screen and related parts, backflushing the group with espresso machine detergent, and draining the boiler. The group gasket will need replacement every 6 to 12 months depending upon usage, time the machine is left on, and the phase of the moon. Replacing this gasket takes about 5 to 10 minutes once you know how to do it, and the part costs a few bucks.
If you really want to see what this machine is "made of," take off the side panels, and what you will see is an example of superb industrial engineering that will put your automobile's engine compartment to shame. This is what you are spending your money on when you buy this machine -- a bulletproof tanklike machine that could as easily be found in a cafe as in your home. You get the thermal stability present in any high grade true commercial machine, which is exactly what this machine is.
In summary, I love this machine, and I'm not parting with it. Pair it with a Cimbali Jr. grinder if you want a killer setup. Or, even better, pair it with TWO Cimbali Jr. grinders, one for regular and one for decaf, as I have done!
Chris' Coffee gives great service and stands behind their products. I wouldn't hesitate to buy from them again, and I'm not easy to please.
Three Month Followup
See original review which was written at EIGHT months.
One Year Followup
This is a THREE year followup. Since purchase I have modified this machine extensively; it now has electronic temperature control (via PID controller) and preinfusion, which was arranged via a "Delay on Make" timer and a pressure regulator set at 3 bar on the incoming water line. The machine, so modified, makes excellent shots with a high degree of temperature stability, rivaling heralded double boiler machines for straight shots, in my opinion. The machine has been very reliable and caused me very little grief with 24/7 operation. I continue to recommend it highly.
I must disavow my prior statements regarding superiority of rotary pumps to vibe pumps; blind taste testing done by Jim Schulman and myself has proven, TWICE, that my 10 year old vibratory pump Junior produces shots every bit as good as this rotary machine. In fact, the rotary machine is much less forgiving of barista variation in the stock configuration. After modifying the machine to have preinfusion, the rotary is as forgiving in use as the vibe machine.
I've posted quite a bit of information on my two Cimbali Juniors since this review was originally written, including discussions and results of the modifications I have done. You can search for these posts on the google groups alt.coffee (usenet) archives, and for a few newer posts on Dan Kehn's forums at his website, www.home-barista.com