I am frequently asked for recommendations on espresso machines. PodMerchant used to sell machines but we got out of that business for a variety of reasons and now concentrate only on coffee sales. I cannot claim experience with all of the machines listed here. Some of them I have used and owned, and others I mention based on design, and some on second-hand information. Some brands will have much better support and service if something should go wrong or wear out. Be sure to enquire about warranty period and coverage, parts availability, and labor support. Caveat emptor!
I classify machines into three categories: pod-only, pod-ready, and pod-capable. Pod-only machines are in general the best, as they are fully optimized for pod use. There is little to go wrong here. If you never plan to go the traditional grind-and-tamp route, these are your best bet for making espresso from pods. Pod-ready machines can also use ground coffee but the machine has been designed or factory-adapted for use with pods. These have the potential of making excellent pod-espresso, but by definition are not fully optimized for pod use. Pod-capable machines are pretty much everything else — You can put an espresso pod in any espresso machine that I am aware of, but the results may vary dramatically. Sometimes the single-shot filter basket will work well, but more often you need a special filter basket to properly hold the pod, and even then, one often gets poor results. The main problem is leakage around the pod, resulting in watery espresso. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I will not be recommending or listing any pod-capable machines.
Starting at the low end, the least expensive machine I would recommend from experience is the Briel Chamonix. It is pod-ready machine. A bit of experience and experimentation is needed to get good espresso from this, or any other pod-ready machine. The Chamonix is relatively inexpensive at around $150.
FrancisFrancis! X6 and X1 with Trio
The FrancisFrancis! X6 with the Trio system represents a new level of performance per dollar. I was really surprised at how good the espresso is that comes out of the X6. This is my home machine and one I use to evaluate products that we sell. This is a pod-only machine and the designers have really figured out how to do it right. If you are looking for a home or light-duty office machine, and the price fits your budget, this should probably be your machine. FF! service and customer support are excellent.
After introducing the Trio technology on the X6, FrancisFrancis! revised their existing X1 to use Trio technology. Same performance as the X6 but a flashier package at a higher price.
Gaggia makes a variety of popular machines and in the past has offered an after-market pod adaptor. I have experience with an entry-level Gaggia Espresso deLuxe that made horrible, watery espresso from pods. The product info on this machine indicates that it has been redesigned and now has a pod filter basket created in collaboration with illy. So supposedly, Gaggia (at least this model) should now make good espresso from pods as well as ground coffee. This is a pod-ready machine.
Nemox Pod-only Espresso Machines
Nemox, well known for their gelato-making machines, also markets some nice home espresso makers. These are pod-only machines which typically make better espresso than pod-ready machines. The Nemox Caffe NEM 205 is a nice, inexpensive machine, and to my eye, may internally be the same as machine sold as the La Piccola BAT Vapor (sold by Lucaffe'), which, of course, is also a candidate.
A step up are the Nemox Pausa and Pausa Cremalatte machines. These machines use thermoblocks instead of boilers to heat the water. This machine appears very similar to the Grimac Terry in design. In fact, I suspect that the Nemox Pausa is functionally identical (and is perhaps made by Grimac). The Cremalatte machine adds a "cappuccinatore" feature, which dispenses frothed milk on the fly. If you want to make cappuccinos or lattes, this would be a good machine to have.
A newcomer in pod-only machines, this machine has separate thermoblock heaters for brewing water and steam. Priced around $460.
Grimac Terry and Terry Tech
The Grimac Terry is a great machine but is getting hard to find. It has two thermoblocks — one for coffee and one for steam. It is a pod-only machine and produces superb espresso. This is the machine we use at PodMerchant headquarters. Grimac has an updated version, the Terry Tech, that I am really excited about, but is so far not available in the US. I hope to buy one to replace our Terry when it is available. The Terry is also known as the Grimac Nuvola.
The Rancilio Silvia has a long-standing reputation and a is favorite with espresso hobbyists. It is now available with a pod adaptor. With the addition of the adaptor, this machine, respected for its quality and performance, may now be a good candidate for pod users. Note: I have no personal experience with the Silvia with the adaptor. I am considering this to be a pod-ready machine whereas older models are only pod-capable. I don't know if using the adaptor prohibits use of ground coffee. I leave it to the buyer to complete research on the suitability of this machine.
The Astra Pro is the least expensive machine that I know of with a heat-exchanger boiler (like a commercial machine). The Astra is pod-ready and is made in America. I have a lot of personal experience with the Astra Pro. Astra machines are a good choice for commercial establishments, offices, and serious espresso hobbyists. If you are interested, please call Astra for pricing and tell them PodMerchant sent you.
The Blitz machine is a commercial-grade machine that is pod-only. This is a machine for restaurants and espresso bars. There are four models: one or two group-head — manual or automatic operation.