Sunbeam EM6900 Twin Thermoblock
Given my opinion of thermoblock machines
in general, reviewing the Sunbeam EM6900 Twin Thermoblock espresso
machine might be thought to be a bit unusual. However, this machine
is supposed to have been designed with considerable input from World
Barista Champion Paul Bassett, making it worth at least a closer
look. This is meant to be the first "consumer level" machine able to
brew and steam simultaneously, as well as using
a "commercial" sized portafilter and baskets.
I purchased the review machine from Myer
Melbourne for the RRP of $599.00, carted it back to the office and
got straight to work. First off, watch out for the box. The machine
and accessories come nicely packed in Styrofoam but the bottom of
the box is one of those "fold in" designs and tends to open up and
dump the contents when picked up by the handholds at the
Unpacking all the bits and pieces, I
ended up with:
Warranty, quickstart guide and manual.
800ml ss milk
Measuring spoon (capacity 12g per scoop.)
double filter baskets (NOT "industry standard" designs.)
plastic tamper with ss base.
58mm twin spout
Corrugated ss cup warming plate.
disc (in rear door.)
And, of course, the machine itself.
Sunbeam EM6900 set up next to a Silvia & Rocky
||Accessories: 58mm Tamper, scoop, 800ml jug, warming
portafilter on left, Rancilio portafilter on right.
the Sunbeam 3l water tank.|
The machine is relatively heavy, with the
top and base made from powder coated cast aluminium alloy. The
middle portion is black plastic "skinned" with stainless steel, and
the rear "door" stainless steel. It sits on adjustable feet; the
rear feet have little wheels in them to allow easy movement on a
Opening the rear door allows you to
remove the clear plastic 3l water tank. The tank has a small resin
water filter and a magnetic water level float sensor built in; water
feeds via a "self closing" valve at the bottom front of the tank.
There is a hinged flap at the top rear of the machine with a
screened plastic funnel underneath it, allowing the tank to be
filled without removing it by pouring water in from the
Steam & Hot Water wands are both
chromed brass with swivelling ball joints; the steam wand has a
single hole tip. The group is formed directly from the base of the
thermoblock, and is stainless steel, as is the flat plate centre
screw showerscreen. Group gasket is made of some sort of soft
silicone type rubber, and is not designed for user replacement. The
group collar is some sort of chromed alloy.
The drip tray and grill are plastic, with
a little red "float button" which is supposed to pop up when the
tray (capacity 1.0 litre) starts to fill. There is an outlet from
the body of the machine feeding into the drip tray; this proved to
be the exit for the solenoid pressure relief valve.
Looking more closely at the various
components, the first thing I checked was the portafilter. It is
indeed a true 58mm brass pf with a proper basket retainer spring.
The "ears" are non standard, so it won't fit in other machines and
standard commercial pf's won't fit in the Sunbeam. It is lined with
a black plastic insert, as are the pf spouts, reason
Then came the filter baskets, and things
started to get a bit weird. The baskets, both single and double, are
VERY deep and the holes in the base are obviously produced by a
different kind of die than that commonly used in Italy. The single
filter basket easily holds 21g (that is, 3 x 7g!) of espresso ground
tamped coffee. The double basket holds 28g (quad!) ground and
tamped. Due to the depth and volume of the baskets the grind setting
for correct shot parameters is coarser than normal.
21g single basket on left, standard 7g single on
28g double basket on left, standard 14g double on
Now I know Paul Bassett is a great
believer in "updosing", i.e. cramming as much coffee into the filter
basket as possible, but this is ridiculous. "Single" shots which are
actually triples, and "double" shots which are quads throw the whole
extraction equation out of whack. More on this later.
The machine has microswitch actuated
rubber knobs for Steam and Hot Water on the left and right sides
respectively, and a bank of LED's plus buttons control panel on the
angled front. The control panel allows for fully manual shots, or is
programmable for measured doses, as with commercial automatic
machines. Other button combinations are possible for backflushing
and cleaning routines. I found that the supposedly default
programmed volumes were very different to those specified in the
manual, 35ml for a single and 70ml for a double, but it's pretty
easy to change them.
I filled the tank, turned on the
machine, waited 5 minutes for the LED's to indicate "ready" and
pressed the Manual Brew button. Pump laboured, nothing happened, no
water flowed. Sunbeam may need to address the problems involved in
pump priming and airlocks in the manual. I found that turning off
the Brew button and opening up the hot water wand (and microswitch)
resulted in water flow about 30 seconds later. After that the Brew
switches all worked as advertised.
Then it was time to get "down and dirty"
into the real stuff like water debit and brew
As part of the brew program,
the machine has a built in preinfusion feature, where 3 short bursts
of water are pumped into the portafilter at 1 second intervals, then
normal flow commences. I simply ignored this in all my shot and
volume timings and started timing as soon as continuous pumping
Water Debit: 95 ml in 10
Water Temperature: 90C,
dropping to 86C after 40ml of flow.
Shot Temperature in the glass:
All these figures are within the specified range for
espresso, and would indicate that while the limitations of
thermoblock technology are still present, in the form of temperature
variation during the shot, they have been throttled back into
|Measuring brew water temperature (about 80ml at this
shot, Sunbeam single basket.|
First, can the machine both
brew and steam simultaneously? The answer is an unequivocal "yes",
and is the best reason for using the programmed preset brew buttons
rather than than the manual brew button and 3 hands.
I set up a Rancilio Rocky
grinder and adjusted the grind until I got a 25 second 60 ml double
shot using the supplied 28g basket and Espresso Meridionale coffee.
The shot had plenty of crema but the flavour could only be described
as "one dimensional"; it lacked the nuance I would expect from this
blend. Then I remembered an exercise I was taught a long time
ago, where a double espresso shot is separated into three 20ml
portions as the shot progresses, and the portions tasted. The first
20ml portion had the same bland sweetness that I was getting from
the Sunbeam. It would appear to me that if you use the supplied
baskets and follow "correct" shot parameters that a large portion of
the flavour that should be in the shot remains unextracted in the
I tested the theory by
removing the Sunbeam double filter basket and inserting a "standard"
Italian 58mm 14g basket (ex Coffeeparts.) The basket fit perfectly,
and the shot pulled after a bit of grind adjustment had all the
flavour I expected. Comparitive testing against a Rancilio Silvia
showed more acidity and less body, very similar to an Imat Mokita or
Gaggia Classic shot. Tested against the Mokita directly, body was
identical but acidity still a trifle higher, probably a consequence
of falling water temperature during the shot. Adding hot milk to the
shots made any variation undetectable to my palate. I would
therefore conclude that given decent filter baskets the machine can
produce quality shots.
The Sunbeam has a "brew
pressure" gauge on the left front of the machine; in theory shots in
the (wide) yellow band are OK, shots in the black or red bands will
be overextracted. In practice, the best shots were always in the
black area, so I'd suggest the gauge needs some
beginning of the 28g pour.
seconds from the end of the pour.|
|Starting the 14g pour.
before the end.|
One major problem Sunbeam will
face in the very near future will be the need to match the machine
with a decent grinder. I tried using a little brick pack of
"Espresso" coffee from the supermarket and got a 9 second 60ml shot
of swill, with the most coffee I could jam into the 28g double
basket and a handstand tamp. Customers who do not know the
importance of grind in espresso preparation will undoubtedly
complain about the performance compared to machines with "crema
enhancing" portafilters. Consumer education is the only answer to
The steam thermoblock side of
the machine (left) gets quite hot, and there is a vent on the upper
left to allow the heat to escape. Grasping the machine on this side
while you drag the steam wand into position is not recommended.
Turning on the steam wand leads to a short gush of water, after
which the separate steam pump begins to pulse out dry steam at
fraction of a second intervals. There is enough steam pressure to
get a "vortex" effect going with about 250ml of milk in the supplied
jug, and decent microfoam is possible. However, compared to a
Rancilio Silvia it takes about twice as long to achieve a milk
temperature of 60c, and foam height is about half. In this respect
the thermoblock and pump combination, while adequate, are no match
for a boiler.
took 2 min 30 sec to heat 500ml of milk to 60C.
took 1 min 25 sec and got much better
Opening the "Hot Water" knob
turns on the "brew" pump and hot water is pulsed out from the brew
thermoblock via the hot water wand. This creates an incredibly loud
and annoying "thump thump thump" sound, guaranteed to
infuriate after the first few repetitions. Why the hot water is not
simply streamed out with normal pumping I don't know; the
temperature drop over 100ml (6C) is not large enough to make much
difference in the cup.
"No User Serviceable Parts
Inside" is the phrase that best fits the Sunbeam. While it's easy
enough to unscrew and remove the showerscreen, I would doubt that
the group gasket could be removed without damaging it. Access to the
interior involves removing about a dozen screws of various shapes
and sizes; it's a technician's nightmare, as well as being (in my
opinion) poor engineering practice. Once inside, the machine appears
well built but cramped, with narrow diameter copper piping and brass
fittings leading to and from the thermoblocks. It's obvious that the
brew thermoblock technology owes a lot to the Krups Novo series.
Both thermoblocks appear to have embedded thermocouples, bimetallic
thermostats and overtemperature fuses. I'm not sure of the reasons
behind the redundancy, although the machine has a "standby" mode
which may use the different temperature controls. Access to the
circuit board is difficult so I didn't attempt it, but it's pretty
clear that it's not meant to allow for adjustments.
idea of the complexity inside the case.
"brain"; away from the steam
During the shot testing
process the coffee streams produced by the plastic lined portafilter
spouts were just a fraction far apart for my shot glasses. After
unscrewing the spouts I found that the portafilter threads appeared
to be industry (i.e. Italian) standard, and seconds later had added
an o-ring and a single spout. Much easier.
After the first week of
testing I had to take a break due to pressure of work. When I
resumed, I was getting weird flavours & aromas in the shots,
even after rigorous cleaning. Finally I saw that the freshly soaked
and rinsed portafilter was still leaking brown goo, from around the
black plastic liner. I removed the liner to find an interesting
collection of growing things and coffee tars in the base of the
portafilter. Thereafter I left the liner out. Sunbeam tell me that
it is there to stop heat loss from the coffee to the portafilter,
but leaving the portafilter in the group and flushing some hot water
through it prior to a shot will prevent this anyway.
coffee had some really funky flavours.
I always ended up with a
puddle under the drip tray after a couple of shots. The spout for
the pressure relief valve is a fraction short, which lets water
dribble around it to pool under the tray. Sunbeam are aware of this
Towards the end of the second
week of testing I came in one morning and turned on the machine to
warm it up. After about 5 minutes there was a loud bang, a cloud of
steam out of the cooling vent and an expanding puddle of water under
the machine. Some quick testing established that something
(presumably the water input pipe from the steam pump to the steam
thermoblock) had come seriously adrift. Note that up until this time
the steamer had only been used twice anyway, and wasn't in use at
the time of the catastrophe. The brew portion of the machine was
still in perfect working order and the control panel showed nothing
I rang the Sunbeam service
hotline (without telling them who I was or what I was doing with
their machine) and within 2 hours they arranged for a courier to
pick up the machine for shipment to Sydney. It did help that I was
able to correctly diagnose and explain the problem over the phone,
and give a clear and logical outline of what had happened. 2 working
days later Sunbeam rang to tell me that they would be shipping me a
new machine, which arrived the next day. I certainly have no
complaints about the level of service.
However, I have since learned
(via coffeegeek.com) that I am not the only person to experience
this problem. Discussions with Sunbeam have traced the problem to
insufficient flare on one end of the pipe from the pump to the steam
thermoblock, and they are correcting any machines they have in
stock. They have not issued a recall on any of the machines sold to
date, which (as I understand it) can't be all that many yet, since
seafreight supplies are not yet established.
I would score this machine at
a 7/10 at present. It has a number of minor problems and at least
one major production fault, but it must be remembered that this is
the first production batch. The warranty service (1 year overall, 5
year Pump) is excellent and Sunbeam have service centres all over
the country. If Sunbeam are able to address some of the niggles and
fix the production faults then the machine will be unmatched at the
price.It comes with good functionality and a suite of accessories
that Italian domestic machine manufacturers should take note of (but
Would I sell the machine? The
answer is a tentative "maybe". If I did, it would be with
modifications to the standard equipment supplied. I'd want to
replace the existing filter baskets and add an extra single spout
portafilter, as well as getting rid of the plastic in the
portafilter. Ideally, I'd also like to push the initial brewing
temperature up 2C to 92C and see what effect it has on the shot
quality. There have been indications that this is possible via
external programmimg but I have yet to see the details.
I would be absolutely rapt to
see the group collar and portafilters adjusted to "standard" fit so
that aftermarket portafilters could be used, but doubt that this
I have had some discussions
with Damian Court, Marketing Manager at Sunbeam, about several of
these issues and he has indicated that they are being followed up.
Until such time as a Mark II version is available and
tested I can't give an unqualified "BUY" recommendation
for this machine, but if Sunbeam do manage to fix all the
niggles they will have a "category killer" in domestic espresso
machines. Their biggest problem will be training the department
store demonstrators in the barista skills needed to show the
machines off to best advantage.