I've always enjoyed straight espresso from cafes, but found the product received to be wildly inconsistent between shops and even baristas. It wasn't until I actually did the research on sites like this one about the science of espresso that I understood how many variables you need to be in control of to make an excellent beverage. This was a daunting discovery for me, because I thought I was looking at about 500 bucks just to get in the door for home espresso making.
Then I received this machine as a gift from my dad. He isn't a big espresso guy but he did do the research and found most people like this machine (on amazon's site). It turns out that this machine can actually make some decent espresso, and for the last week it has made espresso to match the best shots I've ever had from a cafe (including my time living in Portland OR).
The caveat is that I had to make a lot of mods, and spend 2-3 times as much as the cost of this machine on an excellent grinder, the Lelit PL53. Before I had this setup, I had a whirly blade grinder and a Krups steam toy. These items cost me 12 dollars and the coffee beverage they produced was sad and embarrassing. Watery and underextracted swill. After I received this machine, I matched it up against the whirlyblade and stale coffee. Guess what? It was an extremely marginal step up from the Krups, and that's probably only due to the pressurized portafilter. Don't do this and expect magic (as I am presuming many of the other reviewers here have done due to their lack of experience).
So, I did the research. I found this video from a fellow EC155 owner: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fr0iw_fkGGA . Wow, how did he do that? I found the Lelit PL53, an extremely modestly priced pro level home espresso grinder, no doser and stepless. And I got some beans from my local roaster that had been roasted sometime this century (2 days prior).
Then I got to modding. The first thing to go is the pressurized basket. The easy way is to depressurize it by removing the plastic screw, but that's no fun and you can't view it naked. Plus the basket is made cheaply and has all that gross rubber. If you are resourceful, you can find the basket the guy in the video used or something similar. What I got was the Delonghi part number 606348, "2 dose" basket for the "BAR14 BAR19.." series, whatever that means. The 2 dose is a lie, it levels out at about 10 grams, and my experience with overdosing it so far has not been favorable. The other bad thing about this is that it doesn't really lock in to the handle, so after you make coffee it sometimes gets stuck onto the grouphead. Just rock the handle side to side as you remove and it comes off. The holes in the bottom of the basket are made with a million times more precision than the pressurized basket disc. This basket is slightly smaller than the pressurized basket in diameter, which is good because it's a better fit for the cheaply available (and somewhat cheaply made) RSVP Terry's Tamper. You want a tamper, the plastic thing bolted to the machine will only cause trouble, and terry's tamper is less than 10 bucks. Buying this basket from an official part replacement store cost me 15 bucks, but I bet you could get one for pennies if you find one of those machines at a garage sale. The key here is to experiment.
Next thing to go was the bottom of the portafilter handle. Take a saw to the edge right after the screw on the bottom piece. Giggle at the fake weight they put in the plastic handle to make it feel substantial.
Now, I am sure that the pressure and temperature consistency of this machine is sub par, to be polite. You can go as far as making a PID for this machine if you really want, but I think that's probably too much trouble and you might as well invest in a better machine instead. If you disagree, here are the instructions: Click Here (protofusion.org) I measured the temperature out of the grouphead at just under the desired temp, but this is highly unscientific and I am not too worried about it. The important thing, I think, is to always start pulling the shot at the same place on the temperature cycle - I flush before each shot and then start the shot right after the temperature block clicks off (you can audibly hear this and it is accompanied by the green "OK" light). Not saying this is the best time, but at least I am being consistent and keeping yet another variable constant.
I bought a gram weight to measure the basket and a bathroom scale to measure my tamp force, but I don't use these too precisely anymore after the first few days.
The result? Wonderful, balanced espresso with lots of crema. Unfortunately, I don't have the experience of enjoying professional grade espresso (4, 5, 6 on the scale), or I don't remember it well if I ever did. But compared to the 1-3's I get at most cafe's, this is a consistent 3. I think this is a pretty good start for a newbie, and I will keep practicing and honing my technique until I understand the more subtle effects the variables can have.
Edit- I forgot to mention noise. It's noisy. It's not nearly as noisy as my grinder, though. Putting a folded over towel between the machine and the countertop reduced the noise a bit.