Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine Review
It’s no exaggeration to say that Rancilio Silvia is something of a legend. For the past 20 years, it’s been the go-to machine for anyone looking for barista experience on a budget. Still, it’s not without its quirks.
Miss Silvia has a reputation for quality. But is it the right home espresso machine for you? Keep reading our fresh Rancilio Silvia review to find out.
Summary: The Rancilio Silvia
I have owned this machine for 17 years; it’s a tank! Everything is built to survive the apocalypse.– Customer
The Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine Review
The Rancilio Silvia was never meant to exist. The Italian brand has been around since 1927, but for decades they only produced commercial espresso machines. The story goes that in 1997, they presented the prototype Silvia as a gift to some of their biggest importers of restaurant-grade machines (1). They immediately realised the potential for a domestic machine, and Silvia has gone on to become the brand’s biggest seller.
Unlike many other machines in this class, the Silvia has changed little since its inception. There has been no modern revamps of the general functions or design, just a few changes to components like the boiler materials or steam wand. Here’s a bit more about what to expect from this classic machine.
Brewing Capacity – 4/5
Possibly the most important thing you should know about the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine is that it’s a single-boiler machine. While that’s completely normal at this price range, a dual boiler is something you’d be hoping for in a prosumer model, like these machines. A dual boiler allows the machine to heat water separately for brewing and steaming. This means there’s no delay between the two actions, and they’re both done at the correct temperature. With a single boiler, you need to learn to work with the fluctuations and downtime of the machine. That’s precisely the case with Rancilio Silvia.
The single boiler, which is used for both brewing and steaming, holds 12 ounces. This is considerably larger than the 3.5 ounces offered by its key competitor – the Gaggia Classic Pro. The downside to a larger boiler size is a longer heat-up time between drinks, but Silvia’s incredible steam power will mean that you can pull this back-to-back with no issue.
Silvia’s pump system means you can’t plumb it directly into the waterline. But the 67-ounce water reservoir should give you plenty to work with. It’s easy to access and can even be topped up while the machine is in use.
Though there’s only a single boiler here, Rancilio Silvia does make use of three different thermostats. There’s one each for brewing, frothing, and hot water – targeted at the ideal temp for these tasks. But you won’t have any option to adjust any of these thermostats, so if you find your water is too hot or too cold, you’ll need to take a look at temperature surfing, or even replace the thermostat.
One way that makers of espresso machines can cut their production costs significantly is the material used for the boiler. On cheaper machines, you’ll tend to see stainless steel or even aluminium. The Silvia uses marine-grade brass that makes it more resistant to corrosion. Brass is an alloy that contains copper and zinc, so while it doesn’t have the thermal conductivity of pure copper, it’s still a great cost-effective option for a boiler.
The heating element itself is made of stainless steel. Yet, in models from the V4 (2014), it has been screwed to the boiler rather than welded. This seemingly small change means that if the element blows, it’s now easier to replace this single part rather than the entire boiler.
Getting the water from the tank to the brew unit is a 48W vibratory pump. It’s capable of hitting 15 bars of pressure at the pump side, well above the 9 bars needed for espresso extraction. A vibratory is the standard for most espresso makers created for home use and shared on many prosumer machines. The other option is a rotary pump, which is in all commercial machines. Rotary pump machines need to be plumbed directly to a water supply, whereas vibratory machines feature their water tank.
Apart from the fact that they are cheaper to produce, this kind of pump is preferable for domestic machines as it builds pressure more quickly – making the startup time each morning much shorter (2). The downside to these pumps is that the way they operate makes them a lot noisier.
User-friendliness – 3.5/5
Rancilio Silvia espresso machine has always been known as a machine for purists, with no pre-sets and no automation. Depending on how you look at it, this can make it more or less user-friendly. If you’re handy with an espresso maker, this means nothing is standing between you and your ideal coffee. But as a newbie, the lack of settings could leave you with a steep learning curve.
By user-friendliness, we mean what to expect if you’re coming to a semi-automatic machine for the first time. But if you’ve used this type of coffee maker before, you’ll probably find that Silvia’s straightforward controls make it pretty simple to pull a shot of espresso. Perfecting your brew might be another story. As we discussed above, the single boiler means you have to consider the machine’s temperature fluctuations. But there are ways around this – namely temperature surfing and installing a PID.
The Silvia doesn’t have much user-friendly tech, but it does feature a cup warming shelf. This might not seem like a big deal. But if you’re new to making coffee with a semi-automatic, each process is probably taking you a little longer, so you’ll appreciate that at least your shot won’t go cold.
In keeping with the rest of the machine, the control panel is stripped back and very practical. There’s no text on the switches to let you know what they’re for, so you’ll have to remember what each symbol means. But with only four of them, this isn’t going to be too harsh.
Possibly the biggest obstacle to the display’s user-friendliness is the lack of a pressure gauge.
You have the power on button in the middle, which has the universal power symbol in more recent models – older models featured a lightning symbol. There’s a light here that will turn on when the machine is switched on, and another to tell you it has finished heating. The three rocker switches on the side are for espresso, hot water, and steam. All of these are entirely manual, so you’ll need to time your espresso extraction and hit the switch again to stop the water flow.
As we mentioned above, the Silvia is a single boiler machine. This means that when you’re switching between milk frothing and coffee extraction, the machine will not be at the ideal temperature for brewing. And there’s no point in buying good beans if you’re only going to burn them. The solution to hitting the correct numbers is temperature surfing – essentially forcing the machine to drop the temp more quickly than if it was left to cool on its own.
A simple temperature surfing method will ensure sour shots don’t happen, while a more advanced temperature surfing technique is required to ensure bitter/burnt shots are history.
After steaming your milk and cleaning off any residue, you’re going to want to put a spare container underneath the steam wand. By switching on the button for hot water, you’re forcing the boiler to take in more cold water from the reservoir, which drops the temperature. The element indicator light will come on, showing that the water is too cool and the boiler is heating again. This is when you shut off the flow of water.
As the machine is working off a thermostat, the temp will go beyond what is needed before the element shuts off again. So when you see that the indicator light goes out, you’ll need to wait 30 seconds for the temp to come down for the ideal brew temp. Temperature surfing might seem a little complicated at first, but once you get the hang of it, you can improve the quality of your espresso.
Retrofitting a PID
Silvia is an excellent candidate for installing a PID controller. One of the biggest downsides to this machine is the temperature fluctuations due to both the single boiler and the fact that it’s working off a traditional thermostat. Using an onboard computer and a series of algorithms, the PID can ensure a consistent temperature within 1 degree of accuracy. However, you will still have to manage the temp change between the brew and steam processes.
The PID also allows you to perform functions not available with the regular machine, such as pre-infusion and shot timing. You can buy a kit that will attach to your current machine, but some retailers will offer the Rancilio Silvia with the PID already installed.
Milk Frothing – 5/5
Rancilio’s inclusion of professional parts in the Silvia makes a huge difference when it comes to milk frothing. It really is one of the standout features of the machine, with the capacity to create café-standard microfoam – you just need to know what you’re doing.
There’s no froth-assist or Panarello wand as you often find on other espresso machines. What you get is a commercial-grade steam wand with an acorn tip, which is articulated for ease of use. In previous models, this was a chrome-plated brass that had the same peeling issue as the grouphead cover. But as of the V6, it’s been replaced by a long-wearing stainless steel version.
Again, the flipside to this professional quality is that it requires more skill to use. Froth-assist wands will make it easier to develop foam, but you’re not usually going to be able to develop the fine textures needed for something like a latte. Milk texturing requires practice to master, but if you like milk-based drinks, it’s absolutely worth putting the time and effort into.
Build Quality – 5/5
Rancilio made the intelligent decision to concentrate less on looks and more on quality and function from the very beginning. We all know the boxy exterior is a stainless-steel casing, and we love it. Unlike aluminium or plastic, you might find on cheaper machines. Inside you’ll get all professional-grade parts, again made of metal. It’s a solid workhorse, with a simplicity to the build that makes it easy to repair in the rare event that parts break down. It doesn’t hurt that the Silvia is made in Italy, where they’ve had plenty of practice at perfecting the espresso machine.
Bottom line: you won’t find much better prosumer equipment at this price.
While metal parts benefit from a longer lifespan than plastic ones, they are susceptible to rust. This is something you’ll need to look out for when maintaining your machine or buying a second-hand one.
Fortunately, the tamper included in the box has had a bit of an upgrade in recent years. In older models, you had a lightweight plastic tamper that was entirely at odds with the machine’s quality as well as the experience of those who were likely to be using it. It was pretty standard for people to purchase a separate tamper with these machines. But starting with the V6 model, you’ll find a hefty stainless-steel flat base tamper with a blackwood handle.
As you might expect, the Silvia is equipped with a 58mm commercial-grade portafilter. Since the V1 model was released in 2000, it’s been identical to that used in Rancilio’s professional line. The 58mm diameter size is essential, as it makes it easier to follow recipes that have been developed on commercial machines (3). Many domestic machines include smaller portafilters, and not filling them with the same amount of ground coffee can throw out the water to coffee ratio.
The portafilter is made from chrome-plated brass, so it’s a good weight in your hand and helps maintain a consistent temperature throughout the extraction. Your purchase will come with a single shot (8g) and double shot (16g) filter baskets, which are non-pressurised. These are less forgiving for anyone new to using a machine or for anyone with a poor-quality grinder. But in the end, they produce a better-quality espresso as you have more control over the shot.
Just as with the portafilter, the grouphead is a 58mm commercial-grade part made of thermally stable brass. Traditionally this had a cover made from chrome-covered plastic, but the chrome coating tended to peel. Newer models have a group cover made from black plastic.
Buying a second-hand Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine
A huge second-hand market for these machines is a testament to the build quality of the Rancilio Silvia. The sturdy Italian classic has been known to stay in good shape for several decades, and many owners end up moving on to more high-end machines in that time.
Buying from a reputable reseller is the best way to avoid scams or lemons, but often these are listed by private sellers. Ideally, you’d want to see the machine in person before you buy, so you can pull a test shot of espresso and check that the steam wand is functioning correctly. If you’re buying online, see if the seller will take a video of them using the machine. Ask about how often they descaled it, what kind of water they used, and if they replaced or repaired any parts.
Cleaning and Maintenance – 4/5
As much fun as it can be to get the hands-on experience that a semi-automatic machine offers, it does mean that you’ll also be getting very hands-on with the cleaning. There are no cleaning cycles accessible at the touch of a button – you must do everything manually.
Daily, this will mean cleaning the steam wand and emptying the portafilter after every use. You’ll most likely be emptying the drip tray too, which is smaller than you might expect. You’ll need to backflush the Siliva weekly with water, and depending on the water, you use, descale every 1-2 months. On the plus side, the drip tray, cup tray, and water tank are all removable so that you can easily clean them in the sink.
You should note that the Rancilio Silvia doesn’t include a water filter, nor does the reservoir accommodate one. So unless you’re happy to descale more frequently, you should be using water that has been filtered beforehand. You can, however, add a water softener kit that will help you out if the water in your area is particularly hard.
Three-way solenoid valve
All espresso machines use a valve at the group head. The valve opens to allow the water through when the pump is switched on. On cheaper machines, this will be a simple spring-loaded rubber valve that is either open or shut. The problem with this is that there will invariably be some dribble after you pull the shot, resulting in a wet, muddy mess in your portafilter.
So what you should be looking for in any decent espresso machine is a three-way solenoid valve. This controls the flow of water between the boiler, the brew head, and the drain port. When the pump is in action, the water flows freely between the boiler and the brew-head while the drain is blocked off. At the end of the extraction, the opening to the brew head is shut. Any water and extra pressure are diverted to the drain port (4). This means a cleaner extraction all around and a dry puck that you can easily knock out.
Backflushing the Rancilio Silvia
People might have advised you that you shouldn’t be backflushing Silvia. And, indeed, for some time, Rancilio didn’t recommend it, thinking it was unnecessary on a home espresso machine. But now you’ll find that a backflush disc is included in the box.
Do Not Buy The Rancilio Silvia If…
You want something cheaper: In terms of alternatives in the same class, the Rancilio Silvia is often compared to the Gaggia Classic Pro. It’s also a single-boiler semi-automatic machine with many of the same features as the Silvia, such as a professional steam wand (an upgrade from the Panarello wand on the Gaggia Classic).
You don’t have a good coffee grinder: Even though it’s a prosumer machine, Miss Silvia does not include a built-in coffee grinder. You could buy one separately if your budget allows it, or you could pick up a Gaggia Brera for less than the price of a Silvia. As well as having a built-in ceramic burr grinder, it’s a bean-to-cup super-automatic, making it incredible value for money.
You want to get really serious about your coffee: If you’ve got cash to splash and you want to see just how much your money can get you, there are flashier options than the Silvia. The Alex Duetto falls more in the “pro” end of prosumer, equipped with a rotary pump and the ability to be plumbed in. And if you want something in the next level, there’s the legendary Slayer, with patented technology for incredible flow control.
Our Rancilio Silvia review showed you how much of a great home espresso machine Rancilio Silvia is. True, it does have some quirks and limitations. But once you know how to work with them, you’re going to be rewarded with delicious espresso.
And if you’re a newbie, don’t let the learning curve put you off. The Rancilio Silvia espresso machine is a great way to learn anything you ever needed to know about making coffee.
- Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine Repair. iFixit. (n.d.). https://www.ifixit.com/Device/Rancilio_Silvia_Espresso_Machine.
- The amazing technology behind the Rancilio Silvia V6 2020. Best Espresso Machines. (2021, March 31). https://www.bestespressomachines.co.uk/reviews/the-amazing-technology-behind-the-rancilio-silvia-v6-2020/.
- Rancilio Silvia Review: Worth Buying In 2021? Sip Coffee House. (2021, January 7). https://sipcoffeehouse.com/rancilio-silvia-review/.
- 3-Way Solenoid Valve. Whole Latte Love. (2019, August 26). https://www.wholelattelove.com/blogs/tech-tips/3-way-solenoid-valve.