Sound — 8
The EMG 85 is commonly used as a neck position pickup, and for good reason. It has a high output, and a rich, warm low-end which still retains clarity and articulation thanks to a small peak in the highs. On some guitars, this can come across as a bit muddy, however, when paired with the right tonewood, the EMG 85 can really Shine as a powerful, but smooth pickup.
The EMG 85 is best in two applications - clean tones and smooth lead playing. Played clean, it is very balanced and precise, with good picking dynamics coming through (more so than the EMG 81). It lacks the nasally quality of the EMG 81, without the upper-mid peak largely responsible for the 81's infamous "sterility." This makes it ideal for jazzy Chord work and arpeggios, especially when played with effects. However, it won't really manage crunchy blues rhythms or distorted power chords, as the low-end tends to dominate too much.
As a lead pickup, the EMG 85 is fantastic. The clear highs allow for extremely precise playing when under overdrive or gain, and the smooth mids and warm lows really help notes sustain and sing in a way few other pickups do. Although highly distorted lead tones work well with the EMG 85, it'll also do a decent job with more conventional rock or even blues lead provided you don't absolutely require a more traditional tone.
Overall Impression — 8
The EMG 85 is not my favourite pickup by any means, but where it excels it is more than worthwhile. Although a warm pickup, it lacks the same boosted mid peak common in more traditional pickups, which means that it isn't ideal for certain styles of music. For full, rich clean jazzy chords and arpeggios, or smooth, overdriven and distorted leads, it is near-perfect.
Like other active pickups, the preamp does tend to amplify your mistakes, so adjusting your technique may be required to get the most out of it. Also like other active pickups, you can't expect to use your amp set up for passive pickups - the EMG 85 is particular and getting the best from it requires a bit more than plug-and-play.
The EMG 85 I have came installed from the factory with my LTD MH-1000FR. I have had no reliability issues whatsoever with it, nor with any other EMG pickups I have owned in other guitars. I have never used it as a bridge pickup, however, I have heard it can work better in the bridge than the commonly-paired EMG 81 manages in the neck, and dual EMG 85 guitars are not uncommon.
Reliability & Durability — 9
The EMG 85, like most EMG pickups, is cased in epoxy and is not vulnerable to dust, hair and similar foreign matter that can sometimes get stuck in open-coil pickups. EMG pickups are world-class and dependable, built to very exacting standards, and I trust them to sound and function just as well years to come.
As an active pickup, the EMG 85 requires external power from a 9V battery to power its preamp. Battery life is roughly 6 months of daily use, provided that the instrument cable is unplugged when the guitar is not in use, which is quite reasonable all things considered, no worse than any other active pickup, and even a bit better in my experience. The active preamp ensures virtually no hum from the pickup itself, which is a big benefit for high-gain or high-volume playing, and is a worthwhile trade-off.