We have a love-hate relationship with super automatic espresso machines such as the Philips Saeco Syntia Automatic Espresso Machine (Type HD8833). On the one hand, we love the idea of a big black box grinding, tamping, and brewing a true shot of espresso (something like a ristretto), yet in our heart of hearts we know there are no short cuts to true espresso at home or in the corner bar or café.
The Philips Saeco Syntia (Type HD8833) is a space saving, fully (and/or super) automatic espresso machine that retails for $1399 but can be had for just under $1000 with a bit of searching. The Syntia is comprised mostly of black and/or silver plastic components and a stainless steel drip tray top. The unit has a stainless steel boiler, reaches 15 bar pump pressure, has a 1.1 liter water tank capacity, 250 gram coffee bean capacity, and includes a bin capable of holding 8 servings (or spent “pucks”) of espresso.
We used the Philips Saeco Syntia machine in an everyday capacity for a little under two months, mostly pulling single shots of espresso and frothing both whole milk and 2 percent milk for caffé latte or caffè macchiato. We used filtered water and experimented with five high quality espresso beans (specifically, two espresso roasts from a local coffee shop, an “espresso roast” from Whole Foods, and Lavazza Super Crema espresso whole bean coffee)
The machine has a relatively low learning curve (which makes it very easy to use) and essentially contains three mechanisms for adjusting coffee output:
- A grinder adjust knob
- Aroma adjustment button designed to control the amount of ground coffee used in the brew process (from 7 grams to 10.5 grams)
- The amount of coffee dispensed (this is a customized “shot” had via one of the control buttons).
We didn’t expect other control mechanisms as the unit is built and marketed as a fully super automatic machine.
Initial coffee quality “out of the box” was average to below average, especially the first 4-5 shots pulled from the machine. Philips Saeco states that the Syntia is equipped with the “Saeco Adapting System” which adjusts to varying coffee bean types over time. In turn, the initial poor quality was most likely due to the machine getting accustomed to our coffee bean type and overall priming of the system. Our best results came with Lavazza Super Crema whole beans (ironically, the least fresh coffee we tested) and only after proper machine warm up and manual grind setting dialed all the way to “fine.”
Machine warm up generally takes 60-90 seconds. The first and, at times, second cup of espresso pulled after machine warm up is below what would pass as acceptable machine espresso (here the results were more akin to stove top espresso; namely, watery, over-drawn, and bitter tasting); we think this is primarily due to two factors: 1., the machine pulling the shots too quickly due to the bean grind consistency had by the internal grinder and 2. boiler temperature and heat retention. Hence, we recommend discarding the first and, possibly, second cup of espresso pulled from the Syntia during daily use (this not only wastes coffee and water but adds to the amount of time required to brew a shot of espresso, but in our view is necessary) and setting the grind knob to “fine.”
Moreover, and more disappointing, the machine dispenses an initial mix of warm water (a sort of pre-espresso drip) during the very beginning stages of each shot, though we learned to compensate and time placing our espresso cup under the dispenser so we would avoid mixing this liquid with our shot of espresso. Note another trick we discovered while using the unit was to properly heat the boiler by dispensing hot water from the wand for 20-45 seconds into a spare coffee mug (this process seems to help with the overall quality of the shot).
Given the above caveats, the Philips Saeco Syntia produces an average shot of espresso with decent mouth feel and good crema head (though this is an overrated quality in my view); it lacks the silky, and beautiful orange/brown color, and adequate balance of nutty, sweet, and slightly acidic/tart flavors found in high end super automatic machines as well as highly regarded semi automatic units like the well priced Rancilio Silvia (with a brass broiler for proper heat retention – larger brass boilers tend to have higher power elements than the smaller stainless steel ones; in turn, giving better thermal stability and faster recovery) or the outrageously priced La Marzocco GS/3.
Frothing milk via the steam wand was straightforward, though the silver/plastic cover of the wand fell off the unit after a month of use and while it’s designed to be removed for cleaning we haven’t been able to secure it back to its original state. We think the Syntia works well for milk based coffee beverages.
Cleaning the unit was simple, though both the water bin and drip tray are small and needed filling and emptying too frequently for our taste. On several occasions the drip tray overflowed from the rear of the unit (underneath the tray) and the liquid permanently stained our granite counter. The machine was also loud (and clunky sounding) during normal start up and operation and akin to an underpowered engine attempting to move a large car (the internal sounds in the unit aren’t pretty).
In sum, while the Philips Saeco Syntia Automatic Espresso Machine produces average espresso for home use the medium to advanced home espresso user (and discerning espresso snobs) will be a bit disappointed with the end results. Where the Syntia does shine is in ease of use and preparing milk baked espresso drinks. If we had $1,000 to spend on home espresso we’d opt for the $600+ semi automatic Rancilio Silvia V3 and a high end burr grinder such as the Rancilio Rocky for $349.
Overall Pros and Cons of the Philips Saeco Syntia (Type HD8833).
- Overall unit usability is fairly straight forward with large buttons and easily accessible compartments for filling water, loading fresh coffee beans, and removing spent coffee pucks
- Relatively quick warm up time for espresso, hot water, and steam
- Unit takes up relatively little counter space for a fully automatic machine
- The brew group head is easy to remove and clean, as is the water reserve tank and espresso grind / spent puck bin
- Stainless steel drip tray is constructed well
- First shot of espresso (after machine warming up and first use of the day) is consistently watery, bitter, and of poor, general, quality
- Every cup of espresso begins with a little bit of watery discharge from the dispenser which will adversely affect the taste, color, mouth feel, and caffeine levels.
- Little to no customization for espresso output (the unit allows for the calibration of grind manually and has a selector for coffee “strength”) but all other factors are controlled by the machine, as expected in a fully automatic.
- Loud set up and operation noise level
- Selective coffee bean requirement (oily beans are discouraged, for example)
- Small capacity water container, fresh coffee bean bin, and drip tray
- Very small capacity drip tray
Note: the unit was provided by Philips Saeco.