Price paid: $ 99
Purchased from: Guitar Center
Sound — 9
I recently bought two EMG 85's to replace the stock pair of EMG 81's in a 2015 ESP LTD M-1000. I've had a love hate relationship with the 81 over the years. In the right axe, it absolutely slays for nearly all sub-genres of heavy metal. However, this particular guitar, with its alder/maple neck-thru construction, thin neck, and Floyd Rose tremolo, is not inherently well suited to the 81. The 81 is known for it's compressed but aggressive attack, with a tight low end and and focused, razor sharp highs. In my M-1000, tuned to standard E, the tone was dominated by the upper midrange, resulting in a clinically tight and thin tone that lacked saturation and warmth when distorted (no, it wasn't the battery's fault).
After many months of hemming & hawing, I finally went ahead with a pickup swap. I opted to stick with active EMGs in order to avoid replacing the rest of the electronics (active pickups require different pots vs. passive pickups). The goal in switching both pickups to the EMG 85 was to beef up all settings on the guitar, and boy did they do the trick. Played through either a Blackstar ID:60 or a Line 6 Spider IV 75, the tone is far more balanced. The biggest improvement is in the lower mid-range, lending a significant broadness to the notes that was sorely missing before. The bass end is bumped up just slightly from the 81 and is a bit rounder now, though (in this guitar at least) it's still plenty tight for thrash riffage. The increased mid-range push of the 85 results in a fuller, more saturated distortion tone. I have a Fender Strat with a DiMarzio Super Distortion in the bridge, and the EMG 85 is somewhat similar in tone with its broad mid-range, slightly relaxed highs, and bottom-end thump. The 85 has an alnico 5 magnet, however, (as opposed to ceramic in the DiMarzio, and in the 81 for that matter), giving the low end a creamy, chewy character that sort-of reminds me of a Duncan JB.
In the bridge position, the 85 is a versatile beast. It has enough classic alnico character to do well with old-school hard rock, but with a ton of output, allowing for plenty of metal mayhem. In the neck position, your mileage may very with the 85. In a bright 24 fret guitar, the 85 is a solid choice. I really like how it has thickened up and smoothed out both the clean and lead tones. In a warm sounding 22 fret axe, it may be a bit much, in which case, an EMG 60 or 81 may be a better bet.
For this axe, the 85 is just right for both positions.
Reliability & Durability — 10
EMGs are well made pickups. They may have a bit more going on electronically given that there is a pre-amp wired in there along with the pickup coils, but the units are housed in a very solid plastic cover protecting the whole works. An open-coil passive humbucker is more at risk for damage comparatively.
The quick-connect system is very nice, making swapping from one active EMG to another fairly easy. I've always thought they looked cool, too, with their matte textured surface, black finish (other colors are available), and metallic logo in the corner.
Overall Impression — 9
A common criticism of EMG pickups (and passive pickups in general) is that they suppress the character of the guitar they are installed in; i.e. an EMG 81 will sound like an EMG 81 regardless of what axe/plank/broomstick with strings you slap it in.
Having owned several guitars with EMGs (with three in my collection currently), I don't feel that this is truly accurate. Sure, the compressed nature and feel of active pickups run on a single 9v battery will always be there, but the voice of the individual guitar in question still must be accounted for. In the past, I had an Epiphone Explorer with an 81 in the bridge that sounded stiff and sterile for whatever reason. In my current collection, my ESP LTD MH-1001 that has an EMG 81 in the bridge is monster. The 81 seems to compliment it's mahogany-bodied, fixed bridge construction to a T, resulting in a tight, crushing tone that still has some body and warmth to it. I also have another LTD M-1000 that has a slightly thicker neck than one in question in this review, and the EMG 81 set that one is aggressive yet balanced, though the fact that it has heavier-guage strings and is tuned to Drop C helps thicken things up as well.
The EMG 85 set has rid the M-1000 I installed them in of the sterile, somewhat anemic tone that plagued it with the stock 81's. It has also given the guitar a truly unique voice compared to my other two LTD's, which is an added bonus IMO. I mostly play metal, and I am really digging the way in with the 85's have fattened up this axe while retaining the necessary edge for aggressive music.
I definitely recommend the EMG 85 in either the bridge or the neck position for anyone looking to add meat to their metal, especially if you already have an EMG 81 in the guitar and find it too thin.