I did a lot of research before settling on the Duo. I find that my buying tendencies head towards 'underdogs' for some reason and this is no exception. It seems that the Rancilio Silvia seems to get the most adulation from many aficionados working in this price category. The more I kept reading, the less I understood about it. It's a venerable machine for sure, but a bit long in the tooth and seemingly fetching more money than it is worth - This is not to say it isn't capable of great espresso. It clearly is. However, I began to look under the hood of various machines and found that the Duo offered a significant advantage, at least on paper, to a Silvia. What ultimately swayed me to the Ascaso was the dual boilers as well as the free grinder and accessories that came along with it. The grinder sells for $300 (and is for sale, hint hint), and it also came with a heavy metal tamper, two additional and different pro steaming tips, a nice milk pitcher and a thermometer, etc. Deduct the cost for the grinder, and you're getting a LOT of machine for the money.
Generously sized boiler. It's 11oz here on the Duo, vs. around 12 on the Silvia - however, in the Duo that boiler is in a saturated group, meaning the boiler is directly bolted to the grouphead. The group is massive on the Duo and it gets hot QUICK. The portafilter and group get too hot to touch in just a few minutes after startup with no flushing necessary. The boiler is also brass, which holds heat well
58mm commercial style portafilter. Good, solid, and heavy, and will accept all sorts of 3rd party standard baskets for experimentation
Automatic low water shutdown. This seemed like a 'neat to have' until I ran the tank dry by accident, and then it became a 'glad I had it' perk. The tank sits on a weighted switch. When there isn't enough water in the tank to keep the switch depressed, the machine will stop brewing, stop heating, etc. and a light will come on indicating that you're empty.
Solid metal. Nearly everything inside and out of this machine is made of brushed stainless steel. Just the drip tray is lined with plastic baffles (a nice feature) and the portafilter handle of course. Finish could be a tad better. The top of the machine could be machined better for removal, but probably the cheapest components are the buttons themselves. From a few feet away, all is well, but when you see them up close and use them, you see they're relatively low quality plastic with tiny screened on writing. I'd like to have seen a little bit more go into making them feel more Lexus like and less Kia.
Now the dual part - This puppy has a separate brass thermoblock for steam. I've read that these things aren't as powerful as the steam you can get out of a SBDU traditional boiler, but this one still seems to be plenty powerful. The Quickmill Silvano uses a thermoblock for steaming as well, only it uses an aluminum version. I was surprised by this due to potential corrosion issues of aluminum. I'm glad to have brass. I don't know what the watt draw is to the Duo on the thermoblock, but the whole machine pulls 1400. I could probably do some rough math from cold and figure out how many watts are going to the boiler based upon heat up time - Or I could just ask Ascaso. Back to the block... The thermoblock of course uses its own pump, separate from the brew pump. Whatever kind it is it is constant. It does not make that CCHHHHK, CHHHHK, CHHHK, CHHHHK metronome sound that some thermoblocks make. It just hums along while you steam, and due to the thermoblock it will make steam until you run out of water in the reservior - so pretty much forever.
Once I got the grind dialed in and was getting 25-30 second shots of 1.75oz of espresso, I began foaming milk simultaneously to brewing and thats when you realize how cool it is to be able to do that. It takes a bit of a dance to hit the brew switch, bleed the steam switch, dunk the pitcher, hit the steam switch, surf the wand, watch the pour, stop the brew, texture and stop the steam, but I can build a latte from grind to drink in less than 2 minutes and most of that time is in ground prep. And as soon as that one is done, I need not wait for anything. I can just make drinks back to back to back.
Well, all that's awesome, but what kind of espresso does this make? First of all, I'm using a Baratza Virtuoso Preciso as my grinder. I weigh my dose each shot, and I roast my own coffee in a Behmor 1600. The only change I've made has been to move to this espresso machine from a very old Buon Caffe 330 (an old starbucks, thrift store find). The VERY first shot I pulled on the Duo was at least as good as the BEST shot I'd EVER pulled on the Buon Caffe. I can consistently make very nice espresso on this machine. In the 2 months I've owned it, I've had the luxury of heading to 9th St. Espresso in NYC with a taster and sampling their Alphabet City roast in their Chelsea Market cafe. I bought some of it, 3 days off roast, and took it home to pull it on the Duo. Myself and my taster had shots we felt were better than those we got in the cafe. Tastes are subjective of course, but we're talking about some of the best espresso you can get in NYC. I repeated this experiment with Cafe Grumpy as well but I'm giving them a pass because I thought the epsresso I had at Grumpy that day was sour and flat out lousy. Even in a macchiato.
The biggest thing I would change about the Duo would be to replace the temp gauge up front with a pressure gauge instead. I understand the older Dream models had one, and I think this is a much more useful tool for the home barista than a temperature gauge that swings in a 40 degree deadband (!) It really is that bad. I'm excited for the future, as more and more machines are adopting CPU controlled temperatures and getting with the times....
...That being said, I already added a PID. From Auber. They have a kit for the Silvia with preinfusion that with very minor tweaking fits the Duo. I installed it in under an hour and I now have perfect temperature control and repeatability and just a great coffee making machine. Also, since it is entirely programmable, its one less button I have to push when making a milk drink. The PID stops the brew automatically and I can concentrate on foam.
I do have a couple of negatives, one big, one small.
The small one - After 6 weeks of use, my boiler fill hose began leaking. This is the high pressure line from the pump to the boiler. On the Ascaso it is made of pretty thick teflon. It had developed a pinhole near the boiler joint. JL Hufford got me in touch with Espresso 4 home, who got me in touch with 1st-line. Rather than sending or dropping the machine off, I just asked for the part, sent them pics, and the next day I had a stainless steel braided line to replace the teflon one. Pretty darn happy about that.
The big one - Is that Ascaso went out of their way to add incentive by including a nice, metal tamper in the deal. The problem is that the tamper is 57mm. Which fits their non 'pro' models. I had to buy a 58mm tamper. To me I just find it wasteful and downright silly. I now have a hunk of metal I'll probably never use and those folks using the wrong size tamper have channeling and other problems and are blaming the machine. Not wise.