The Man vs. $1,400 Machine Coffee Taste Test

The Man vs. $1,400 Machine Coffee Taste Test

Gregory Han
Dec 9, 2011

Product: Saeco Syntia Cappuccino Espresso Machine
Price: $1,399.95
Rating: Recommended*

If there's one thing I've gotten a little pickier about over the years, it's coffee. I wouldn't call myself a hardcore purist, but I've transitioned from a youthful ignorance beginning with the convenience of pre-ground roasts prepared with an automatic drip machine, later to stovetop and french press methods, and finally now to grinding my own beans and preparing one cup at a time using an Aeropress. The difference in taste is quite remarkable, each new technique (and other methods) revealing a wide range of tastes once untapped by the standard drip+filter machines we all grew up using...

So when Philips Saeco contacted me about their Philips Saeco Syntia Espresso Cappuccino machine, the first fully-automated espresso machine to be certified by the Centro Studi Assaggiatori Italian Tasters, I was curious to see how it would match up with my preferred method for making a cup of coffee or espresso. And to make it even more interesting, I invited several friends for a blind taste test, pitting man vs. machine...

The first thing I noticed unpacking the Philips Saeco Syntia loaner was the weight (alongside the fact the previous reviewer didn't clean out one darn receptacle before shipping this unit off, so my first duty was cleaning the whole system out). At 20 lbs. even without anything loaded into it, the stainless steel looks and feels solid, albeit a bit more sleek than a true professional machine. The Syntia was obviously designed to be an appliance one proudly keeps out in the open, a sleek, modern form factor with a space-friendly 10" width footprint.

Setting up the Syntia was fairly easy, only requiring loading up the bean hopper up top with your choice of whole beans or into a pre-ground receptacle (the horror), and attaching the optional milk carafe element if frothed milk is desired for a cappuccino. The top receptacle is an airtight, anti-UV storage for beans, which in turn feeds into a built-in ceramic disc grinder for each and every cup you command the machine to make for you. The option to control the coarseness of the grind, the amount the doser per serving, and the brewing temperature, gives a reasonable amount of control.

All of this fine tuning is controlled using an easy to use iconographic display system; the first few times we had to refer to the instruction manual, but thanks to a combination of fairly clear graphical icons partnered with a green (ready), yellow (in progress) and red (error or needs attention) display system, using the machine becomes quite intuitive even when you're not fully acquainted with all the features.

For the everyday person, this machine is likely going to be used for triple duty: coffee, espresso and cappuccino. So we loaded up the hopper with some Intelligenstia Fruit Bat, our current favorite roast, and turned on the machine. The machine takes a short while warming up the elements, spitting out a first cup of siphoned water you'll discard, displaying the warmup yellow indicator, turning green when the Syntia is truly ready to dispense your choice in beverage.

If you're used to the quiet drip maker, you may be in for of rude awakening with a machine like this. Although it's not jackhammer loud, the Syntia can drown out normal volume conversations when in the process of grinding and brewing. The process transitions from a one-button digital experience to what could only be described as an "industrial" performance: first the Syntia draws from the 40oz water tank (a welcome inclusion is a built-in water filtration unit inside the tank not unlike a Brita/PUR filter), quickly warming up a serving of water, grinding a serving of beans, followed by the brewing process, and then finally dispensing a predetermined amount into your cup below. It all takes under a minute or so, producing a very agreeable cup of coffee. Or more notably, an espresso, where the crema (the highly desirable micro-bubble foam) becomes truly evident, a textural quality I realize is not truly reproducible using the Aeropress.

Of course, I also had to indulge in a cappuccino, so I installed the milk carafe attachment and it frothed away at the touch of a button, producing a satisfying creamy hot milk that neutralized some of the bitter bite of an admittedly strong brew setting. I don't normally indulge in adulterated coffee concoctions, preferring my coffee drinks unsweetened and without milk, but I have to admit using a machine like this made me quite fond of frothed hot milk at the touch of a button (and even more so when I realized stirring in a spoonful of Nutella made for a better sweetener than sugar alone).

Cleaning the Syntia is very easy. The display notifies when any part needs to be emptied or cleaned, the only real chore being the maintenance of the milk carafe parts, which need careful attention since it's used with dairy. Otherwise, maintenance is handled with a dial turn and button press, with the system flushing parts clean in-between servings and when the system turns off (it turns itself off after a certain amount of time to save power). Only the removable overflow drip tray wasn't quite up to snuff; the plastic and metal appears flimsy compared to every other aspect of an otherwise premium looking/feeling setup. Plus the top where the cup sits ontop gets easily marred with scratches after only a few uses.

Cupping/taste test scoring sheet I designed, alongside a music playlist I put together revolving around the subject of coffee (view large here).

So back to our taste test: I invited six friends, all daily coffee drinkers with a wide variance of preferred methods and roasts to score during a blind cupping taste test utilizing all the same roast, but using three different methods of preparation. The drip machine was partnered with an electric grinder, the Saeco Syntia has a built-in grinding unit, while the Aeropress was partnered with a Kyocera hand grinder. Each participant was given a scoring sheet for determining "aroma", "taste", "mouthfeel", and "overall score". Also, we asked for each taster to guess how the sample was prepared, with any additional notes about each serving.

Here's how the Centro Studi Assaggiatori Italian Tasters do it. Our cupping/taste test would be much more humble, but surprisingly as serious!

To no surprise, the electric grinder and electric drip coffee maker was deemed "coffee shop quality" almost across the board. Some wouldn't even finish their minute serving. The Syntia came next, with everyone noticeably perking up from the aroma alone, noting there was much more flavor to be appreciated alongside the crema-improved mouthfeel; everyone took a longer time determining taste per sip versus the first drip method, with a few audible remarks of it being perfect everyday coffee and much more descriptive feedback about the taste.

Finally, we served the group the hand ground Aeropress (I was in the kitchen dying at this point, my first barista-type experience; hats off to the pros). The group was divided upon sipping, hemming and hawing between this last cup and the previous, a pair calling the hand prepared method, "a cup I'd want time to sit down to enjoy". One taster found the Aeropress coffee much too strong, perhaps wishing we'd allow for the addition of cream and sugar.

At conclusion, when the group was asked which method they preferred between 2 and 3, the Syntia and the Aeropress, there was no clear winner, maybe the Aeropress the slightest favorite. The Syntia pulled ahead as the favorite once the testing/tasting was finished and everyone could just enjoy a cappuccino, so there's was really no loser that day except my arms from hand grinding so many servings.

Pros: Well constructed, compact form factor makes Syntia kitchen counter friendly; icon+color coded icon system is easy to use; built-in water filtration; integrated grinder and customizable flavor settings allows for taste tweaking; one button crema feels and tastes like a luxury; cleaning and maintenance is simplified, nearly as easy a regular drip coffee maker.

Cons: price makes this a big ticket luxury appliance; drip tray seems mismatched in quality; loud operation.

Our Ratings:
Strong Recommend
Weak Recommend
Don't Recommend

Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. However, the manufacturer did give us a loaner unit for testing and review purposes.

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