The Saeco Italia I bought from Starbucks started misbehaving about three weeks ago and when said vendor's customer service vouchsafed the happy news that I would be getting a complete refund (since apparently they've stopped carrying the machine) I started to research the replacement. My first trip to this forum opened my mind to the many, many, many market solutions to the problem of brewing a credible espresso at home.
At the beginning of my research the rep at Whole Latte Love really loved the Expobar pulser and I also began to think the NS Oscar had it going on, so to speak. It's pretty staggering to be able to get this level of equipment for the price. Ultimately, though, the long HX warm up times coupled with the fact that they can't be put on a timer to be ready when one arises(since the pstats want to be manually nulled when cold) convinced me that the higher cost, higher electrical consumption, and long warm up compared to a boiler removed HX machines from consideration.
I also read a thread here which drove home the point that a good grinder is a necessity, not an option. So I looked at the Super Jolly deal from tagex, and in fact I ended up getting many e-mails from tagex reminding me they have lots. I liked that SJs are quiet and essentially heirloom items when used for home grinding but they are also, like the hx machines, complete overkill for our needs.
We love good coffee and we don't mind spending the money for decent equipment because it saves us from having to spend three dollars a time for sub-par espresso drinks, but it's absurd to install equipment designed to continually pump out shots when daily consumption almost never even reaches double digits. On the days that it does it'll take a little longer. In the mean time total electrical consumption is probably well under half that of a HX machine.
So the Rilvia and the Socky together with the stainless tamper box/storage drawer base for 790 bucks, shipping included, seemed like the sweet spot in terms of efficiency, looks, durability and performance. For us anyway.
After calling around we ended up getting the Rancilio combo from 1st-line. They gave us a sweet deal on 2-day air which was made all the sweeter when Fedex shipped it overnight.
Unfortunately Socky's base was tweaked during shipping but this happens often enough that 1st-line stocks replacement bases and one is apparently on its way. When I called about this I ended up dealing with with Jim, one of the partners at 1st-coffee. Jim really knows the industry and the equipment and I thoroughly enjoyed the instant lesson he gave me in some of the more abstract considerations of residential espresso making after sorting out the Socky base issue. He must have said it all a million times over but he remained patient and enthusiastic, which is way more than I could have done had our roles been switched.
So, anyway, how's the coffee? Far better than it has any right to be considering that we are still learning the equipment. Socky is dialled in for 25 second shots. Rilvia produces incredible volumes of steam and milk foams just beautifully. (A cafe in Tucson has a 'steamed egg' on the menu which is a simple and brilliant thing--scramble an egg in a large cup, and cook it by immersing the steamer wand just like you would milk. I tried it this morning and Rilvia was well up to the task--you actually have to minimize steam flow to have a chance of cooking the egg evenly.) The base is very nice: It raises both machines enough to make pulling shots and cleaning just a little easier. And having the grounds box directly below the group head helps controlling mess. It's big, too.
The Socky works well. Finding the sweet spot on the grind dial took some work because I had no sense of the right amount of coffee to put in the filter. I went from really fast extractions to completely blocking the flow. Finally I started weighing the coffee and removing that variable. By the time I got the grind dialled in I could accurately estimate the correct coffee volume.
Faults? I use a lot of water to preheat the grouphead and cups and to cool the boiler and keep it filled so it's a good thing that the 'wash wand' hose from our kitchen sink extends to the smallish water tank. If it didn't filling the tank would get old fast.
Otherwise there's not much to complain about. This is the fourth and best pump machine we've bought in the last fifteen years and by far the best grinder.
I am very grateful to all the other posters here who took the time to describe their own equipment. I found those reviews to be the most valuable resources for researching this significant purchase. I hope that my own reactions will be useful in the same way.
Great. Solid deal on the whole package and two day air. Free coffee. Lots of Rancilio experience, parts and expertise.
Three Month Followup
Well, the newness and imposing gleam of the Rocky/Silvia/base are gone and now it's a kitchen tool like many others. It gets a lot of use, it's finicky, but on the whole it's just great. The biggest change over the last three months is what the operator(s) learn. You get to the point where you can pinpoint why a given shot doesn't taste great--the portafilter wasn't hot enough, or the coffee wasn't tamped properly. It's always something which the operator can control.
After six weeks I ran the first descaling operation. Not very difficult. One of the truly valuable pieces of information I got from this forum is the need to descale.
Would I make the same purchasing decision again? Absolutely.
One Year Followup
I added a PID to the Silvia about six months ago and that was a huge improvement. With a clean coffee grinder, a descaled machine, and careful preparation it is possible to get some extraordinary coffee from the Silvia.