Sound — 7
The sound of the EMG 81 is surprisingly clean for a pickup considered to be the holy grail by many extreme metal types. It doesn't bowl you over with output by any means, even compared to many passive pickups. It's certainly enough for high gain applications, though be sure to set it close to the strings (which is encouraged, as active EMGs exhibit minimal string-pull). If you back off the height with an EMG 81 like you might with a passive pickup, be prepared for disappointment, as the output drops off quickly. The tone is very tight in the low end. There's punch there, to be sure, but no flab at all. The mids seem fairly flat, while the highs are very present and can be borderline excessive on some amps. If you want ultra-tight, crunchy, & clear metal rhythms and piercing lead tones, the 81 is the name of the game. It is extremely clear & articulate under high-gain. It's actually not awful clean thanks to the enhanced treble. However, it's a very hi-fi sound, when can definitely be a turn-off for some. The most common knock against EMGs is the sterility of the sound. The 81 is simply not good for Vintage tones. It is far too clinical and controlled to be a great choice for blues or classic rock. Forget about warmth here. Interestingly enough, the 81 does make a serviceable neck pickup, though its limitations above still apply. My guitar came stock with the 81 in the bridge and the 85 in the neck. I don't care for this combo, primarily because the 85 totally overwhelms the 8 in output when in the neck, forcing me to lower the 85 considerably to compensate. I experimented with swapping the two pickups, putting the 85 in the bridge and 81 in the neck. The output levels were much more balanced this way. The hi-fi tendencies of the 81 were still in full effect. The clean sound was punchy & sparkly (almost too much so), while the lead tone in the neck was much spankier then the 85 (though also thinner & considerably less smooth). It was an interesting experiment, but I eventually swapped them back, and I plan to replace the 85 with an EMG 60 sooner than later.
Overall Impression — 7
The guitar in question is a black Epiphone Explorer 1984 EX model, which is basically a spitting image of James Hetfield's ESP Explorer from the "Black Album" era. I have been a big Hetfield fanboy since I was a teenager, so getting this axe was a no-brainer for me. The EMG 81 is a great choice for metal, especially thrash metal & modern extreme metal. It's clarity & sterility actually become an asset in this arena, allowing your flurry of palm muted rage to come through clearly without any trace of mud. For hardcore metalheads, the EMG 81 gets a 10, no doubt. That said, don't be surprised by a perceived lack of output relative to its reputation. For that matter, don't expect much else from the 81. If you play styles other than metal and/or hope to get a wide variety of quality tones from this, forget it. That is why I downgraded the rating to 7 for sound & overall. For me, I will keep the 81 in this guitar given that the whole reason I bought the guitar was to bash out Metallica tunes. I would not buy an 81 to retrofit into another guitar, however, as I much prefer the sound of passive pickups for general use.
Reliability & Durability — 8
EMG active pickups have a bit more going on with them than your average passive pickup, which probably means more potential failure points. That said, I don't see any reason why they wouldn't last for years. The pickups themselves are well made. The covers seem fairly damage-proof (within reason of course). The quick-connect pins and wiring seems maybe a little flimsy, but not horribly so. Changing the battery is kind of a pain, as there is not a lot of room in the battery compartment to squeeze everything in. There also isn't a whole lot of slack in the battery connector wire. Every EMG install is different, however; these concerns are probably more tied to my specific guitar.