BY DAVID DICKSTEIN Contributing writer
Whatever your fireworks budget, getting the most flash for your cash is critical, and that's where we come in: The Californian's annual guide to the best fireworks separates the sizzlers from the fizzlers among all the new offerings on the market this year. Plus, we give a rundown on the returning favorites worth your money.
Fireworks are rated on a five-star scale for performance, duration, distinctiveness and overall comparative value. Products are listed in order of price, high to low. Except for the new fireworks, all of which were rated, only items that received at least four stars made our list. The others, quite simply, are not worth your time or money.
Let the sparks fly!
New for 2012
Opening Show (TNT), $59.99 : Winner of "best new finale" honors, this 500-gram marvel is a must-have despite the record-setting price for a California fountain. The spread of sparks at the 2-minute mark is the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Similar, if not identical to Shogun's Tailgate Party found in other states. 130 seconds. 41â2 stars
Stacks Up (TNT), $39.99: Out of the fountain's dozen smokestacks spews a lackluster combination of glitter, crackles, chrysanthemums, snow and multi-colored rain. Don't be fooled by labeling that gives the impression this is a 500-gram firework. It's got to be closer to 350. 144 seconds. 3 stars
Peacock Tail Fan Fountain (Phantom), $29.99: Taking top honors as "best in show," this isn't the longest fan fountain on the California market, but it is the most impressive. Each stage is different and builds excitement. Dazzles with silver flowers, stars of red, green and blue, and a titanium crackle finish. A must-have. 54 seconds. 5 stars
Independence Day (TNT), $19.99: With a name like that, of course this fountain has sparks of red, white and ... orange, green and purple? Well, it is a free country. Blue isn't the only thing lacking in this long-lasting but run-of-the-mill rookie. 130 seconds. 21â2 stars
O-Blivion (TNT), $19.99: This lord of the ring-shaped fountains emits multi-colored chrysanthemums with pine and some of the best titanium crackles of any new firework. 125 seconds. 4 stars
Phantom Joker's Wild (Phantom), $9.99 for three: Separately they're a joke. Together they're wild. Distancing the dissimilar trio in the driveway and lighting them simultaneously offers a better performance than many single fountains at the same price. 35 seconds. 4 stars
Parfait Fountain (TNT), $6.99: Its namesake means "perfect" in French, but this freshman falls short of that with middling colorful chrysanthemums and silvery crackles. 59 seconds. 31â2 stars
Little Miss (TNT), $4.99: One of the few fireworks named and labeled to appeal to young girls, this well-priced opening act packs plenty of color plus silver rain and crackles. 47 seconds. 4 stars
14-inch Morning Glory (Phantom), $3.99 for 20 : This newbie handheld measures 3 inches longer than regular morning glories, but two of those inches are stick. The extra powder makes for a more intense burn, but peters out 30 seconds quicker. 17 seconds. 2 stars
Phantom Magic Torch (Phantom), $2.99 for two: A miniature California candle is all this is. Nothing magical here. 21 seconds. 2 stars
Short & Stout (TNT), $1.50: It's a little teapot, short and stout, it has a handle, it has a spout. More short than stout, but a cute, cheap novelty for kids. 17 seconds. 2 stars
Best of the Rest (four to five stars)
Delirium (TNT), $49.99: Fan-shape fountain conserves none of its 500 grams from the get-go, making for brief, yet dazzling intensity and beauty. Get ready for a lot of "Are you nuts?" comments from whoever knows the price, which, by the way, went up a Lincoln bill. 133 seconds.
New York Harbor (Phantom), $39.99: Stellar burn time and multiple effects, including some of the highest-quality chrysanthemums you can buy. This 500-gram classic proves that not all standard-effect fountains are the same. 195 seconds.
Star Voyager (TNT), $34.99: Earned "best new finale" honors last year with a fantastically priced, long-lasting 500-gram performance of bright and crackling titanium bursts that push the 10-foot-high legal limit. A worthy buy even at $5 more this year. 173 seconds.
Phantom Crown Jewel (Phantom), $29.99: Dazzling 500-gram display of white flowers, colored pearls and crackles, gold chrysanthemums and silver crackle. Packs a wallop, though that also reduces burn time. 90 seconds.
Brew Haha (Phantom), $29.99: Beer stein-designed fountain brims over with above-average effects, including a loud opening whistle and a cavalcade of color. Fun packaging. 145 seconds.
Alpha Wolf (Phantom), $21.99: Green and purple droplets, gold shower and crackling stars finale are awesome. No whistles, doesn't need them. Up $2 from last season. 83 seconds.
American Spirit (TNT), $21.99 plus bonus: Offers up a patriotic blend of red, white and bluish stars, gold showers and decent whistles and crackles. Comes with the boisterous, multi-colored Sizzler Fountain (90 seconds). Pretty good deal even with the $2 increase. 80 seconds.
Molten Pot (TNT), $19.99: Entertaining combo of colorful blooping globs (always a crowd favorite), titanium crackles, fish, glitter and chrysanthemums. 86 seconds.
Pyropalooza (TNT), $19.99: Excellent height, crackle and vivid hues -- a vivacious visual. 115 seconds.
Hasta La Vista Baby (Phantom), $19.99: Like color and hate whistles? Then this is a solid pick with a screech-free spectrum of fast-changing colors. $3 more this year, but still a winner. 125 seconds.
Funky Monkey (Phantom), $18.99: This pyrotechnic primate features red pearls and a solid overall performance. Worth the $3 increase because if its distinctiveness. 90 seconds.
Apache Firedance (Phantom), $17.99 for two (buy-one-get-one): Makes the list only because of the two-fer deal. Long burn time is overshadowed by low-altitude and humdrum crackles, whistles, white flashes and multi-colored sprays. 210 seconds.
Mad Dog (TNT), $14.99 for two (buy-one-get-one): Amazing crackles, whistles and multi-color sparks are improved by TNT again, making this a two-for-one item. 80 seconds.
Firecracker Fountain (Phantom), $14.99 for two (buy-one-get-one): Lives up to its name with a remarkable crackling barrage among multi-colored pearls. 76 seconds.
Phantom Night Owl (Phantom), $14.99: Phantom's only internally glowing fountain has four loud screeches and an exciting overall performance. Eyes and mouth that light up make this item a real hoot and a wise buy, even at $2 more this year. 65 seconds.
Night Treasure (TNT), $14.99: Looks like a fan fountain, and it is, albeit only for the final 22 seconds. Went up $2, but still a value-priced fan. 98 seconds.
Flying Stars (Phantom), $12.99: Fantastic fish-featuring fountain that, because it's noiseless, is also friendly to pets and fuddy-duddy neighbors. 97 seconds.
King of Bling (Phantom), $12.99: The crackles heard during the final third sound just like popping popcorn. Majestic chrysanthemums and whistle, even at $2 more this season. 90 seconds.
Volcanic Vortex (Phantom), $12.99 for three: Cones usually produce more yawns than sparks, but not this awesomely intense trio. Definitely worth the $2 increase. 45 seconds each.
L.O.L. (TNT), $11.99: The eyes and mouth of the clown face glow from within, making for loads of fun right after an opening shriek. Hope you're sitting down -- the price actually went down a buck from last year. 61 seconds.
Radiant (TNT), $10: This instant classic debuted last season and got a rare 5 of 5 stars for stunning performance and price, which TNT hasn't changed. This solid buy pushes the legal limit for spreading sparks. 93 seconds.
Luck of the Irish (TNT), $9.99: This classic fountain features gold and silver spray, red and green balls, crackles and four super-loud whistles. 75 seconds.
Lil Red Devil (TNT), $8.99 for two (buy-one-get-one): Packs plenty of heat for the size and price. Ends strong with titanium crackling sparks spreading out an impressive 9 feet. 35 seconds.
Pink Diamonds (TNT), $7.99: Not much pink in the fireworks marketplace, so props to this unique item, still modestly priced with a dollar increase. 46 seconds.
Phantom Mystical Magic (Phantom), $6.99: Fleeting duration, but love those multi-colored, marble-sized blooping globs and a new price that proves last year's $8.99 for two offer was mystically crazy. 32 seconds.
Phantom Dragon Slayer (Phantom), $6.99: Got some white, blue and lemon chrysanthemums, rowdy crackles and red stars going on. 66 seconds.
Electrical Shock (Phantom), $5.99: Red and green showers give way to a raucous whistling and crackling finale. Fantastic buy. 121 seconds.
Moondance (Phantom), $3.99 for two (buy-one-get-one): 4-inch dynamo spews loud crackles, purple pearls and glittering gold and white sparks. (Note: Identical to TNT's Purple Rain, $5.99 for two.) 45 seconds.